Start the new year right by learning the towing rules of the road in each state. If you are new to towing or just need to be reminded about the different state laws, here in a capsule are the main requirements.
Some states require that you have a special endorsement on your driver’s license to operate a large RV or a vehicle towing a trailer. In other states, you may not need an endorsement but must be over 18 or 21 to drive a car that’s towing a trailer or other vehicle. There may be additional insurance required for legally towing cars.
If you are planning a trip, make sure you check the towing laws and regulations for your state and any state on your itinerary.
Trailer Towing Laws by State
Although you may be law-abiding in one state, you could be breaking trailer towing laws in another. When you take a road trip in the U.S., you may cross multiple state borders.
Your trailer could be too wide—as maximum width narrows by six inches. You suddenly need trailer brakes—because the weight limit falls 1000 pounds. For instance, if you cross over from Alabama to Mississippi, you could suddenly be exceeding the maximum towing speed, which falls 10 mph.
In addition, states differ on their rules about multiple trailers. If you’re hauling a camper and a Jet Ski behind it, you’d be a good citizen in South Carolina, but breaking the law once you cross the Georgia state line.
No matter where you are in the U.S., you’ll have to make sure the trailer you’re towing is equipped with:
- Taillights: The trailer needs operable taillights for basic road safety.
- License plate light: Make sure to display your license plate with its own light.
- Safety chains: These chains, which cross over in the shape of an X to connect the trailer to the towing vehicle, help prevent separation if the hitch connection fails.
- Brake lights: Your trailer isn’t transparent. The people behind you are having trouble seeing around your trailer for stops ahead, so the trailer should have brake lights of its own to prevent a rear-end collision.
- Clearance lights: These might be required only if your trailer exceeds a standard width.
- Turn signals: If, for instance, your trailer blocks your vehicle’s signal lights, it’s good to have separate turn signal lights on the trailer.
- Reflectors: These are an invaluable precaution to keep your large trailer visible.
Extra safety equipment that certain states require:
- Breakaway brakes: Like safety chains, these prevent accidents when your hitch fails. These are power brakes that apply to the trailer upon separation from the tow vehicle.
- Flares: Keep these at hand to direct traffic off a section of the road after an accident.
- Tie-downs: If you are loading anything on a trailer that could fall off, you need tie-downs to secure it at multiple angles.
Passenger Restrictions for Fifth Wheels
As a standard rule, passengers are not allowed to travel in a fifth-wheel trailer while it is being towed, but 21 states do allow it, including California, New York and Pennsylvania.
States Vary on Length
The length rule varies as these examples show:
- North Carolina: Max 35 feet.
- Wyoming: Max 60 feet, combined length of towing vehicle/trailer, 85 feet.
- Mississippi: Max 53 feet for a combined length of towing vehicle/trailer.
- For Maximum Allowable RV Lengths by State click this link.
Many states require that the trailer be fitted with a safety chain, and a separate braking system for trailers over a certain weight, typically 1,000 pounds but as high as 3,000 or 5,000 pounds in some states. The breakaway switch activates the brakes if the trailer becomes separated from the towing vehicle. For larger RVs, brakes must be fitted to each wheel.
Only 14 states require a fifth wheel to carry a fire extinguisher.
While underway, trucks towing fifth wheels must stay in the right-hand lane in states including California, and some states prohibit a right turn on a red light.
- Forget the carpool lane in Connecticut.
- Stay away from the tunnels in Maryland and Massachusetts if you are carrying propane tanks on board.
- Driving with the support of a radar detector or police scanner is banned in many states.
Rear Light Requirements
A pair of red brake lights; a pair of red taillights, used to indicate the trailer’s width; a pair of yellow or red turn signals; and a single white license-plate light must be present on the rear of all trailers in the United States.
Most of the lights, except for the license-plate lamp, must be placed as far apart as possible at an asymmetrical height between 15 and 72 inches, according to the NHTSA. The license-plate light must be mounted directly above or to the side of the license plate.
Side Light Requirements
- Sidelights, used to make other drivers aware of the trailer’s presence and denote its length, must be placed in the same location on both sides of the vehicle.
- Rear side lights must be red and set as far back on the trailer as possible, between 15 and 60 inches high.
- Yellow front side lights must be placed as close to the front of the trailer as possible and be at least 15 inches tall.
- All trailers over 30 feet long must have intermediate side lights to make other drivers aware of the extended length. These yellow lights must be placed in the middle of each side of the trailer and be at least 15 inches high.
- Trailers that are more than 80 inches wide must be equipped with added lighting on the front and rear to show the trailer’s width.
- Two red rear clearance lights must be placed at the trailer’s widest point, as far apart and as high as possible.
- Three red identification lights must be centered on the back of the trailer, spread between 6 and 12 inches apart, and placed as high as possible.
- Front clearance lights must be put as high and as far forward as possible, at the trailer’s widest point.
How to Determine the Towing Capacity of a Travel Trailer
A three-vehicle chain that includes your towing vehicle, travel trailer and added towed item makes for a long length [illegal in certain states].
To uncover the towing capacity of the tow hitch on your travel trailer, look for a weight rating on the top or underside of the hitch. This information may be located on the logos or engraved portions of the hitch.
Your tow hitch may include a removable hitch ball and tongue; in this case, inspect the ball and tongue to establish their class as well.
What do you think is going to happen to the current laws when this model hits the road in 2025?
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