Contributing editor Steve Banner takes a look at the regulation and latest developments in the trailer market and highlights a recent change in the legislation that could make a great deal of difference.
A small and barely-noticed change to the regulations governing the construction and use of light trailers has made them just that little bit more practical.
The Department for Transport has scrapped the rule that limits to 2.3m the overall width of a trailer being towed behind a light commercial grossing at up to 3.5 tonnes. It’s now 2.55m, which brings the UK into line with the rest of Europe.
Making a trailer wider obviously means that it can carry more; a change that’s bound to please existing trailer users and encourage people who are thinking of investing in one to take the plunge.
Hang a trailer off the back of your van and you’ve immediately increased its carrying capacity. You’ve also made your business that bit more flexible. If you’re working at two locations then you can tow a trailer laden with equipment to the first one and leave it there along with an employee or two while you carry on to the second site. You can then pick up your trailer and your colleagues a little later.
Trailers only require a modest amount of servicing — it mainly involves periodically checking the lights, the tyres and, where fitted, the brakes. Unlike a van, they don’t attract Vehicle Excise Duty and if you look after them, they’ll last for years.
You can buy a trailer bodied as a box van, a dropside, a flatbed or a tipper. Some have tiltable beds for ease of loading and trailers specifically designed to transport items of plant are available too.
A good example of a plant trailer is the tandem-axle Low Loader launched by Indespension in 2009. The bed height has been set low for greater stability and to make it easier to get plant on and off. The loading angle is a modest 15°, while bolted chassis construction makes it simpler to remove and replace damaged components.
Not to be outdone, Conway launched a lightweight van trailer, the VT506, last year. It grosses at up to 750kg with payload capacities starting at 330kg depending on the model concerned.
Indespension has also improved the design of its single-axle Roller Trailer, used by construction companies to transport pedestrian-operated road rollers. The bearings were wearing out prematurely in service so the ones the company uses on its 3.5-tonne plant trailers are now fitted instead. What’s more, a chain tensioning system that clamps to the trailer is now available to secure the roller in transit and stop it bouncing around. The alternative is usually to use ratchet straps, which may fray.
Still with load security, Indespension now offers TrackLock to ensure that mini excavators stay in place when they’re being hauled around on a trailer. It uses metal clamps that are located in a channel and push down on the excavator’s tracks.
The versatility of trailers, and the willingness of builders to construct products that precisely meet the customer’s needs, is neatly illustrated by a set of trailers constructed by Ifor Williams, the country’s biggest light trailer builder, for Stagecoach’s Megabus intercity coach service.
The coaches regularly pull a twin-axle luggage trailer. Unfortunately some of the latest ones to be acquired are 14.3m long compared with a previous 13.8m, pushing the overall combination length above 18m – the maximum permitted length – once a standard Ifor Williams BV85 has been hung off the back.
Solution? Ifor Williams built ten specially-shortened luggage trailers for the company instead. “The whole job was completed in a very short time and Ifor Williams did well to turn things around so quickly,” says Stagecoach engineering director, Steve Drain. “We’re extremely pleased with the outcome.” The trailers have to stand up to some remarkably high mileages. Megabus’s services include one that runs twice-daily from Aberdeen to London
If you’re proposing to pull a trailer, check your van or pick-up’s top permitted towing weight. The absolute maximum is likely to be 3.5 tonnes and that could give you a trailer payload capacity of up to around 2.8 tonnes.
An open-backed single- or tandem-axle trailer able to carry upwards of a tonne is likely to set you back between £1,000 and £2,000 depending on specifications. A tipper trailer could leave you with a bill of between £2,000 and £3,500, again depending on specifications and whether you opt for manual or powered operation.
A box trailer might cost you £1,000 to £4,000 depending on how big a beast you’re looking for.
Don’t forget that you’ll need to equip your van with a tow-bar. That’ll set you back a further £200 or thereabouts including fitting.
Trailer makers have been busy beefing up their nationwide network coverage over the past 12 months. Indespension has opened up new outlets in Penrith and Carlisle while Ifor Williams has appointed new distributors in Reading (T H White) and just outside Bridgwater (Boulter Mead Trailers).
All braked trailers built on or after 1 October 1982 must be fitted with a safety device in case the towing vehicle and the trailer part company. In the majority of cases a breakaway cable is used. Generally made from steel, and frequently plastic-coated, it’s linked to both the towing vehicle and trailer.
It goes taut and applies the latter’s brakes if the trailer breaks loose. It is designed to part once it has done so and hopefully the trailer will come to a halt a little way away from the towing vehicle.
Remember that pulling a trailer alters the behaviour of your vehicle. Braking distances will be longer, it will burn more fuel and you will have increased the length significantly; something to think about when you’re emerging from a junction or entering a roundabout. Bear that in mind and you’re less likely to come to grief.
The legislation that governs trailers and towing is complex. Addressing the topic of the driving licence that’s needed first, if the trailer you’re proposing to haul with your 3.5-tonner does not have a gross weight in excess of 750kg then a category B qualification will cover you. In other words, you can drive the combination using an ordinary car driver’s licence no matter when you passed your test.
If it tips the scales at above that weight and the sum of the gross vehicle and gross trailer weights totals more than 3.5 tonnes, then you’ll require a B plus E category on your licence. If it does not then a B category will fill the bill unless the gross weight of the trailer is in excess of the unladen weight of the towing vehicle. If that’s the case, then a B plus E qualification is necessary.
If you passed your driving test before 1 January 1997, then you’ll almost undoubtedly hold that qualification automatically. If you passed it after that date, then you’ll need to take a separate test.
Car drivers who passed their test prior to 1 January 1997 are also allowed to drive a 7.5-tonner hauling a trailer grossing at up to 750kg. If you passed your test after that date, then you’ll need to take another one before you’re allowed to become a 7.5-tonner jockey; with or without a trailer.
So far as Drivers’ Hours and tachographs are concerned, if the permitted gross train weight — ie the maximum weight the towing vehicle and trailer combined can operate at — of the rig you’re driving exceeds 3.5 tonnes gross, then you’re within scope. There are a number of exemptions under the law, however; vehicles being used by the armed forces, for example.
Remember that these days digital rather than analogue tachographs are fitted to any new vehicles that require them and you’ll require a smartcard to use one. They’re available from the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency.
You’ll also require downloading tools so that you can extract, store and analyse all the Hours data the tachograph and card will end up holding.
Turning to O licences, if both the towing vehicle and trailer have ministry/manufacturer’s plates and the trailer’s unladen weight is over 1,020kg, then you’ll need one if the vehicle and trailer gross weights add up to over 3.5 tonnes. If the trailer’s unladen weight is less than 1,020kg, but the towing vehicle grosses at above 3.5 tonnes then you’ll need one too.
If the vehicle and trailer do not have ministry/manufacturer’s plates, the trailer’s unladen weight is over 1,020kg and the sum of the vehicle and trailer unladen weights is over 1,525kg, then yet again, an O licence is needed. If the trailer’s unladen weight is below 1,020kg, but the plate-less towing vehicle’s unladen weight exceeds 1,525kg, then an O licence is required under these circumstances too.
Again, all sorts of specialised vehicles are exempt from the O licence rules, including those operated by the fire, ambulance and police services.
From the trailer viewpoint it’s worth noting that pulling a road roller with a 3.5-tonner won’t bring you into O licence scope. Nor will hauling a trailer not primarily designed to carry goods, but which does so incidentally because the operator is involved in road construction, maintenance and repair.
Don’t forget that different speed limits are in force if you’re pulling a trailer. They are 60mph on unrestricted motorways, 60mph on unrestricted dual carriageways and 50mph on other unrestricted roads. If the gross weights of the trailer and towing vehicle combined exceed 7.5 tonnes, then the limits are 60mph, 50mph and 40mph respectively.
A trailer is a relatively cheap way of extending the flexibility of any light commercial, especially if it’s used to move essential plant to a site. The legislation, however, is extensive and over-complicated so a certain amount of research is called for to maintain legality.