There’s nothing like a beautiful spring day to bring out the trailer that has sat unused since last fall. A lot can happen to a trailer while it sits idle waiting to be useful again. Lighting connections corrode, tires lose pressure, reflectors are broken, brakes need service along with many other possibilities for wear and malfunction.
Are you tempted to just hook the trailer up, eyeball the tire pressure and take off? Look around you in traffic, you’re not alone!
If you pull a heavy recreational trailer, you will have learned all about the necessity of a pre-trip inspection check when you were studying for your heavy trailer licence endorsement. This examination is just as important for drivers who tow light trailers.
The hitch ball must be the proper size for the coupler. Attaching the trailer to a ball that is too small is just asking for trouble!
All trailers that connect to the tow vehicle with a hitch ball require a safety chain (or chains) that are equal in strength to the coupler. These chains must be free of abrasion damage and attached to form a cradle under the hitch to support it if it fails.
Lights and reflectors are next and it is not sufficient to simply shrug and say that everyone behind me can see the lights on the back of my tow vehicle. Tail, brake, signal, licence and marker lights must all be present and functional along with the appropriate reflectors. Plug them in and test them before every trip. If they don’t work, make the repair before driving away.
The tires must have sufficient tread, be properly inflated and capable of carrying the weight that you are going to put in the trailer. While you’re at it, check the wheel nuts to make sure that they are tight too.
Overloading a utility trailer is a common practice. I watched a man load his trailer last fall during firewood season. The sidewalls of the tires were compressed and bulging but he had made it home like that before so he didn’t think that it was worth worrying over.
If you are stopped by the police for being overweight, you will be expected unload the extra weight before you move again.
Finally, let’s take a look at the brakes, if they are required they must be adjusted and working properly.
My experience has taught me that surge brakes are the most neglected part of any trailer. At roadside checks I used to hand an adjustable wrench to the driver and ask them to demonstate the brake fluid level in the reservoir. The cap was either solidly corroded in place or was destroyed in the attempt. Yes, we checked the brakes before we left officer…
Surge brakes are relatively simple to check, just pull the breakaway brake cable until it locks the lever and try to drive forward. If there is no resistance, chances are good that the brakes are not working.
Electric brakes are a bit easier to test. Just apply them from the controller at the driver’s seat and make sure that they are adjusted properly and resist forward movement.
Is the battery for the breakaway brake system charged and will it hold the trailer stopped for at least 15 minutes? This is usually not an issue on RV’s as the trailer battery is used for other purposes, but on utility trailers it is often dead or missing.
Before we leave the subject of brakes, remember that if your tow vehicle is a pickup truck, you may be required to stop and check the brakes at the top of steep hills just like the drivers of heavy commercial vehicles.
This is not a complete list of considerations but should serve as a good starting point for a safe trip.
Cst. Tim Schewe (Ret.) runs DriveSmartBC, a community web site about traffic safety in British Columbia. For 25 years he was an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including five years on general duty, 20 in traffic and 10 as a collision analyst responsible of conducting technical investigations of collisions. He retired from policing in 2006 but continues to be active in traffic safety through the DriveSmartBC web site, teaching seminars and contributing content to newspapers and web sites.