Unlocking the mysteries of caravan sway

Mark George, a senior accident investigator with more than four decades of experience (and a part-time grey nomad), explains why knowing your rig – and understanding its capabilities and limitations – are so important to staying safe on the road.

Survivors of caravan sway will tell you that the phenomenon is a very scary experience that can catch you by complete surprise and leave you wondering about what actually caused the incident.

Depending on the circumstances, trailer sway may often be unrecoverable, with devastating results, and whether or not you and your passengers happen to survive, as with any accident, is just a matter of timing and luck.

Caravan sway and the causes thereof are well documented within the caravan industry and scientific community.

From a laymen’s viewpoint, there are so many variables involved, that one can be easily overwhelmed in trying to understand the best preventative measures for your rig.

Generally, most caravan drivers know that incorrect load distribution, overloading, inappropriate tyres, tyre pressures, poor/inappropriate suspension, poor road conditions, the effects of wind, including buffeting from passing vehicles, and excessive travel speed, can all contribute to trailer sway.

Likewise, it is equally well known that there are many products readily available to help reduce the likelihood of trailer sway, such as load distribution hitches and anti-sway bars, or to arrest the effects thereof, such as Electronic Stability Control for caravans and Trailer Sway Control incorporated into some Vehicle Stability Control systems.

I like safety systems.

How you prepare your caravan and trailer is paramount to the safety of you, your passengers and other road users. Vehicle and trailer manufactures, and indeed many interested third parties, have gone to a lot of trouble to research and prepare easy-to-follow instructions for their particular products.

Follow your vehicle and trailer manufacturer’s instructions at all times. People who just hook-up and go are accidents waiting to happen.

Everyone’s rig will be different, but the must-knows are:
• The tare mass and gross vehicle mass (GVM) of both your caravan and tow vehicle
• Maximum towing capacity of your vehicle
• The gross combination mass (GCM) of your tow vehicle
• Maximum rated capacity of your towbar and coupling
• Maximum rated mass capacity of your tyres
• Maximum rated mass capacity of your axles
• The payload of your caravan and tow vehicle
• Load your caravan as recommended by the manufacturer, with the load bias forward of the axle. Subject to tow vehicle manufacturers’ specifications, you will want around 10% of the caravan’s loaded mass resting on the towball (invest in towball scales for your caravan)
• Consider using a load distribution hitch
• Consider using a sway control device if your total caravan mass is greater than your tow vehicle mass
• Do not exceed any of the above maximum capacities.

Mark George is the Director and Principal Investigator of Accident Investigation Services Pty Ltd. He has been involved in accident investigation for 43 years, and is a current ACTAR Accredited Traffic Accident Reconstructionist.


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