Do you need to tow a car or trailer soon but you aren’t sure of the law surrounding it?
Perhaps you’re stuck in a broken-down vehicle and want to ensure you’re being safe on the road and in built-up areas? Or maybe you’re looking for advice for making a vehicle and trailer combination easier to manoeuvre?
Worry no more! This guide provides a clear outline of the UK law around towing vehicles for drivers, including the parts required, size and weight limits, along with expert analysis and tips for drivers behind the wheel of both vehicles, whether you’re doing the towing or sitting in the towed vehicle.
Legal Requirements for Towing in the UK
Towing cars, trailers and caravans on UK roads is perfectly legal, provided you have the correct licence and comply with UK road rules and regulations. These rules are in place for your safety and the safety of drivers around you.
Below we will outline the details around towing legalities, but first, here are the essential laws drivers planning on towing a car, trailer or caravan:
- Number Plates: For identification purposes, all cars towing other cars, trailers and caravans must clearly display their number plate on the back. This must be the same number plate as the car doing the towing and easily visible to surrounding cars.
- Driving Licences: Any driver who wishes to tow with their vehicle must have passed a driving test and hold a full and valid driving licence. There are three classifications of driving licence which will affect your eligibility:
- Drivers with a licence issued on or after 19/1/2013 can tow vehicles and trailers up to 3,500kg, with the shared MAM (maximum authorised mass) no more than 7,000kg. Drivers can pass an additional test for category C1+E to tow trailers and vehicles of a greater weight
- Drivers with a licence issued on or after 1/1/1997 but before 19/1/2013 are required to pass a further driving test to gain entitlement to category B+C (car and trailer combinations) and also for all larger vehicles
- Drivers holding a licence issued before 1/1/1997 retain their earlier existing entitlement to tow trailers unless their licence has been legally restricted.
- Towing mirrors: Drivers towing vehicles, caravans or trailers are also required to use towing mirrors. Failure to prove a full view of the road behind you could lead to prosecution including 3 points on your licence and/or a fine of up to a maximum of £1000.
How to tow safely
Towing is harder than it seems and coupled with the nuisance of breaking down it can be a high-pressure driving situation. It’s good to be prepared with plenty of knowledge of how to tow a car, trailer or caravan. The tow car should be safely fitted with the necessary accessories to abide by UK law and provide a safe driving experience.
Below we cover some useful information about what you’ll need, how to use these tools and keep yourself, other road users and the towed driver safe and comfortable.
Tow bar design
Tow bars are used to safely pull another vehicle. The device is attached to the vehicle frame to form half of a tow hitch system, the other end of which is attached to a variety of vehicles for transport or recovery. Tow bars are significantly more secure and safer than a tow rope alternative, which can cause a potentially dangerous snapping motion while braking.
Tow bars are required to be ‘type approved’. This means it must meet EU regulations and is specifically designed for your car type. Type-approved tow bars will be labelled with:
- An approval number
- Details of the vehicles it is approved for
When towing any kind of vehicle it’s imperative you can fully see the road behind you.
This is crucial for keeping yourself, the driver of the vehicle being towed and other road users safe. Remember, you are now essentially driving with the length of two cars, if not longer.
UK law states you must be able to see along both the towed vehicles’ sides and four metres on either side at a distance of 20 metres behind the driver. Mirrors should not project beyond the overall width of the caravan.
Types of towing mirrors
Let’s take a look at a few common types of towing mirrors you might use to give yourself an adequate view while there is a towed car attached to yours, including the tow car itself.
Clamp-style mirrors are the most popular choice for most drivers due to their exceptional stability and simplicity of function. They can be attached easily to most cars and come in a variety of different shapes, including teardrop.
Strap mirrors remain a popular choice for drivers towing larger vehicles, such as caravans, particularly for their quick and easy fitting process.
Suction mirrors attach to the car mirrors and can be adjusted using the car’s own electric mirrors for greater visibility. They have been known to struggle with stability, however.
A more costly option, but electric mirrors can be adjusted from inside the vehicle using infrared remote controls. Ideal for solo travellers.
Convex or flat?
Modern car mirrors are convex (featuring a curved reflected surface), meaning it makes sense to use compatible convex towing mirrors. These offer a slightly distorted view, but a beneficial wide-angle image.
Flat mirrors, by contrast, offer a smaller field of view but without distortion. Whether or not you opt for this or a convex mirror is a personal choice, but the additional field of view offered by the latter is recommended by most experts.
Legal requirements of towing mirrors
UK vehicles with towing mirrors are required to show the ‘e-mark’ to prove they have legal approval to drive.
If you are buying brand new towing mirrors, you should check for those that are manufactured to the very latest standard. As of 2021, this is E4. This will be clearly marked on the mirror cowling.
Fortunately, modern disc brakes are developed to provide a good level of baking force regardless of the weight being carried.
However, exceeding the general weight limit of towed cars and trailers (along with additional luggage and passengers) can easily overheat your brakes and lead to long-term damage known as brake fade.
Most cars will have an individual maximum weight they can tow. This can be found in the handbook or specification sheet that came with your vehicle when bought new or used.
Drivers should not feel pressured to exceed towing capacity and might be fined significantly if they do so.
Alternatively, you can go by the vehicles ‘gross train weight’. This may be listed on the vehicle identification number plate found within the car. You can locate this under the bonnet or inside the driver’s side door.
The ‘gross train weight’ of a vehicle is the weight of the fully-loaded car plus a fully-loaded trailer. This must not under any circumstance be exceeded.
If you can’t find a VIN plate for your vehicle, avoid using it for towing and hire a specialist alternative.
The maximum width for any towing vehicle is: 2.55 metres
The maximum length for a vehicle or trailer being towed (weighing up to 3,500kg) is: 7 metres (this length does not include the A-frame)
Tips for the towing driver
Driving while towing a vehicle can be an extremely different and challenging experience if you’ve not done it before. To ensure a safe drive, follow these tips:
- Drive with extreme care and avoid speeds of over 15 mph
- This gives you more time to react to the road around you
- Carefully use the clutch to pull away gently to prevent the tow rope from snatching and the car being towed from suddenly jumping forward
- Avoid sudden braking, pressing lightly on the brake pedal in advance of actually stopping
- This will illuminate the towing car’s brake lights alerting the driver being towed and other vehicles around you
- Indicate plenty of time prior to a manoeuvre to alert the driver being towed and other cars
- Avoid sudden changes of direction or excessive manoeuvres, as the driver being towed will need to mimic your steering and braking
- Include a tow sign for maximum clarity
Remember: Towing poles and cables are not designed to act as a brake for the vehicle being towed and both drivers should act in tandem to protect their vehicles and those around them.
Tips for the driver being towed
If you’re in the vehicle being towed there are still things you can and should do to ensure the safety and efficiency of fellow drivers on the road.
Here are some easy to remember tips:
- Keep an eye on the brake lights and indicators of the towing vehicle for maximum clarity of upcoming movements and speed changes for other drivers
- Steer and brake your vehicle in accordance with the vehicle towing you
- Keep some tension with the towrope or towing pole at all times to minimise any jolting
- This can be achieved through applying light brake pressure
How should I prepare my vehicle to tow?
Making sure your vehicle follows all the legal requirements and following a routine car test are great starting points for preparing your vehicle to tow. Check systems and features which may be pushed slightly further than usual through towing, such as your brakes, oil pressure and steering.
The best advice is to be cautious, practice before your journey in an open space if possible and familiarise yourself with the towing laws within the highway code.
How do towing laws differ for electric cars?
While there are no direct laws prohibiting the use of electric vehicles for towing, many experts have highlighted some models are not suitable for the job.