Caravan towing courses

Possessing the necessary knowledge and skills when towing a caravan helps keeps everyone on the roads safe. Photo David Hume

Safety paramount as caravan boom attracts new followers

Australia’s population is ageing continually and the numbers of elderly citizens with extra leisure time on their hands is growing accordingly. This band of mature fun-seekers have sought out travel as one of their premier pastimes. The retired getaways have even earned a branding name for themselves – the grey nomads.

The urge for our seasoned hipsters to hit the road in their twilight years has seen an upsurge in the use of mobile homes and caravans as the preferred means of transport. It might not be as radical or freewheeling as Peter Fonda’s Wyatt and Dennis Hopper as Billy on their revved-up motor bikes in the film Easy Rider, but it still brings a sense of freedom that the oldies can do their own thing and clock up the kilometres when and where they want.

However, the seemingly genteel form of road transport provided by a caravan being towed by a car comes with unforeseen perils. Specifically, do the patrons who are setting out on their adventure actually know what they are doing? Driving a car is one thing, but taking up your place behind the wheel with a huge, attached vehicle at the rear is a far more taxing assignment than it might at first appear.

Australia is renowned for its vast distances which can involve assorted road surfaces, sapping climatic conditions, extreme temperatures as well as erratic animals on the loose. Against this background, it is no wonder that new inexperienced caravanners can be a danger to themselves and other road users. An unfortunate offshoot of this increase in traffic is a corresponding rise in the number of accidents involving caravan folk.

To curb this worrying trend caravan owners need to instill themselves with a mixture of awareness and common sense. If caravanners are able to realise what causes accidents, they can go some way to preventing them before they happen. Prevention is always better that reaction.

Some of the rules that drivers should adhere to are simplicity itself. There is also the nagging need that eager retirees should acquaint themselves with some of the proper skills required to handle a caravan. Some people have even called for mandatory towing courses to be introduced before drivers are allowed out on the highways.

Setting up a caravan before the start of a training exercise at the METEC centre in Melbourne.

Aside from steering techniques, some of the obvious causes of accidents are self-explanatory and can be worked around. For instance, driver fatigue often comes into the picture. Commonly labelled drowsy driving, tiredness can cause people to lose control of their vehicle behind drooping eyelids which results in accidents. One road safety guideline recommends that caravanners must not exceed a one-day distance limit of 400 kilometres in order to guard against fatigue.

Overspeeding is another factor on the list of dangers. There is an unspoken rule not to travel above 96.5 km/hr when towing a caravan. If the speed goes above that limit, the merest nudge to the rear vehicle will flip the caravan one way or another, creating an accident. It is also fatal to oversteer when you are speeding. And yet this is so easy to do. Vehicles not equipped with a Flex Steer system can run into instant problems. The Flexi Steer helps the steering to remain rigid when the SUV picks up speed.

For any SUV with a caravan in tow, travelling at 80 km/hr without this device fitted means that oversteering can occur even if the driver simply steers an inch towards the left or right.

The advent of wind is another cause of caravanners running into grief. Sudden gusts can make the caravan shake, sway or fishtail. A safety survey has revealed that this is a major cause of caravanning accidents as drivers are prone to panic in such a situation and fail to retain control of their rig.

To rectify this trauma, it is best not to apply the brakes suddenly, but to decelerate gradually. The installation of a stabiliser can eradicate snaking and it is also worthwhile to ensure the nose weight and axle weight are not too high.

Another major cause of caravan road accidents is overloading. The basic weight limit for a caravan is viewed as 160kg. But this unwritten rule is one that is regularly flouted, which can have catastrophic results. Each caravan is provided with a recommended loading limit detailed by the manufacturer. This mark should always be adhered to as an overloaded caravan is easily tipped off balance, turning it into an immediate hazard for anyone involved.

A learner driver carefully negotiates the twists and turns on the METEC training layout.

In a similar vein, it is a bad move to travel with an overlong caravan. The maximum allowable length is 7.3m (24ft), but 5.5m (18ft) is the recommended safety limit. The maximum permissible height of 4.3m (14.1ft) and 2.5m (8.2m) should also be taken into account. Many first-time buyers are tempted to go for a rig that is just too big for them to handle.

Another oversight that can produce unfortunate upshots is the state of a caravan’s tyres. It is imperative that tyres are in sound condition and always properly inflated. Age, UV light and general wear and tear can affect the state of tyres, which should be inspected regularly. Any sign of indents or cracks means it’s time to replace them. Generally, experts reckon that tyres should not be used for longer than five years, even if they exhibit few symptoms of deterioration.

With so many causes of accidents to beware of, it is worth employing a code of safety behaviour to ensure such pitfalls are avoided before they happen.

Once the caravan has been ticked off as being roadworthy by checking couplings, suspension and wheels, it pays to adopt a cautious approach on the road and be conscious of what is going on around you.

Playing things by the book means not using a mobile phone when driving, no drink driving and remaining calm. Recklessness should be shown the red card.

Adventurers can avoid potential safety snags by also planning ahead. Natural disasters and bad weather can be sidestepped by checking any itinerary. Avoiding prone areas in vulnerable seasons seems to be the byword. After all, caravanning does not sound much fun in severe rainy spells. Flash floods and storms can make the journey suddenly become stricken with trepidation.

At the other extreme is the threat of fires. Any camping or outdoor fires should be carefully monitored and contained. And preferably a distance away from such vulnerable objects as caravans.

Rudimentary driving skills can bring the reward of savouring a stress-free trip. Flawed reversing technique is a prime reason for accidents. It is best to drive forward and shun reversing if the driver is uncertain about what method to employ. Another tricky option is overtaking. This looms as an intricate task with a caravan to take into consideration. It is an undertaking best left alone but if it is necessary to overtake a slower vehicle, it should be done with ample time and space at the driver’s disposal.

The little things shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to caravan safety.

So there are seminal safety hurdles to surmount before any would-be caravanner can get the show on the road. Yet if the venture seems overly daunting, don’t worry… help is at hand. The assistance comes in the form of various safety courses that have sprouted up at separate locations around Australia to instruct drivers on the procedures of caravan towing.

One such establishment is the Metropolitan Traffic Education Centre (METEC), which has its driving training centre in the east Melbourne suburb of Bayswater at 112 Colchester Road.

The centre is a not-for-profit organisation which has been in business for 40 years with its base comprising 5km of safe, closed roads.

Manager Kathryn Collier felt that training in handling caravans should be mandatory.

“Definitely,” she said. “Things can all go very wrong, so quickly.

“We have a lot of people who come to us when things have done just that.

“And a lot people also come before anything bad has happened because these days there is so much web footage of things that occur.”

Kathryn said the caravan courses are certified and run over one long day, covering multiple aspects of caravanning.

“It’s not just about how you drive but how you hitch things together and set up the caravan properly,” said Kathryn.

The courses are small with two vans used per each instructor. There is a total of six vans that can be employed in total.

“The courses are very popular and we were booked out for June but we usually see about 30 to 40 people a month.

“Ninety-nine per cent of them come as couples. We take their initial enquiries then check for availability.

“We send them a DVD to watch before they arrive to give then a clearer understanding and a bit of a visual,” said Kathryn. “And they can also get used to the jargon and language of the subject.”

The instructors are specialists in their field and continually keep abreast of technical developments in the caravan world.

So if would-be caravanners want to take the stress out of familiarising themselves their new passion, they will be in good hands. The cost is $597 per couple/vehicle. For more information, call 03-9725-4758 or email The METEC course is also featured on the website, which contains a comprehensive list of other training outlets across Australia. Be safe, not sorry as the road ahead beckons.

Keep an eye out for reduced speed limits, particularly when entering towns. Photo David Hume


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