In December 2021, due to the various factors causing a shortage of lorry drivers, the government scrapped the car and trailer towing (B+E) test to free up more space for LGV tests. This in turn meant that anyone with a car licence could now tow a trailer of up to 3.5 tonnes, just as those drivers who passed a car test prior to January 1997 had been able to. The training industry and safety bodies opposed the move since a driver could pass their test in a Mini on Monday and drive a Defender 110 towing 3.5 tonnes of mini-digger on Tuesday. Although the government recommended drivers still sought training for this, human nature being what it is very few did, while many trainers sold their trailer due to the test being scrapped, or moved to the more financially lucrative LGV training which the government was trying to increase.

Licensed to pull

With the old Category B+E now inclusive, you can drive a vehicle with a MAM (Maximum Authorised Mass) of 3,500kg and a trailer with MAM of up to 3,500kg within the maxima allowed for trailer MAM and GTM (Gross Train Mass) by the vehicle manufacturer. For example, a Land Rover commercial or 4×4 pick-up of 3,200kg MAM with a trailer allowance of 3,500kg MAM adds up to a 6,700kg GTM. However, check the vehicle’s GTM limit, it may only be 6,000–6,500kgs for instance. This will be shown on the chassis or VIN plate.

This 3,500kg or more GTM is also where tachograph legislation comes in. It used to be taken that tachograph legislation related to permissible, not actual. So if your plated GTM was over 3,500kg a tachograph would be needed, but recent court rulings were that if the combination was operating at under 3,500kg despite higher permissible allowances for vehicle or trailer then a tachograph was not required. The very fact that advisory bodies cite court rulings in their advice tells us what a minefield this can be. The bottom line is that if the vehicle MAM or combination GTM exceeds 3,500kg and it is used for hire, reward or the commercial carriage of goods, a tachograph is required. A couple of notable exceptions are that if the trailer is fixed plant – such as a compressor – it cannot be goods carrying or if the materials and tools are purely for the driver’s use – a builder with their own minidigger, for example. However, if you are a builders’ merchant, delivering those same materials or hiring the digger out, you come under tachograph requirements. Actually buying a trailer has been the biggest difficulty, the shortage of semi-conductors lengthening vehicle delivery times affects production processes too and Ifor Williams – the UK’s biggest manufacturer of Category 02 trailers – was, at one point, quoting delivery times of 2 years.

The weighting game

Trailers in Category 01 are only 750kg MAM, handy for dirty tools, or light but bulky items that would defeat a car-derived van, but for serious work you’ll need a Category 02 (750–3,500kg MAM) trailer. These have a maximum length of seven metres (plus drawbar) and width of 2.55 metres. Some flatbed and car trailers approach seven metres long but most general purpose, dropside and tippers are seldom over five metres in length. Likewise most boxvan and dropside designs work to the older 2.3 metre width since their 3,500kg weight limit would come into play first. You must be able to see down both sides
of the trailer – with accessory extension mirrors if required – but there’s great peace of mind in choosing a trailer no wider than your van. When it comes to manoeuvres, particularly if you have not had to sit the B+E test, nor received training, reversing can be a source of stress, but easily eliminated. Have a good look first, reversing on your right is far easier, but assess the gateway and side road. Get out and have a look. Only ego prevents otherwise experienced drivers from doing this, put that aside and look before you leap. Many sites will only allow you to reverse with a banksman. Ask them to stand where they’re visible on your blind side – usually left mirror – and if they disappear from view; Stop, simple as that. Technology helps too. For now let’s avoid the can of worms that is cameras replacing door mirrors, but some interesting takes on the simple reversing camera are now available. Land Rovers, optionally, now have a roof top camera which projects an image in the standard interior mirror. It is wide angle and works well in low light, but it can also see over a dropside, tipper or plant trailer. Some panel vans, notably the Ford Transit have a similar device, but being mounted halfway up the rear door, it is of no use with trailers. Land Rover also offers a full Trailer Assist option using a target decal on the trailer’s headboard or front body panel. You program the system with the trailer’s dimensions and then steer your intended path with the Terrain Response dial on the facia. The Land Rover then operates the steering wheel like a self-parking system to counter-steer and correct. All very impressive, if difficult to get used to at first.

When loading, having ensured all parameters of MAM and GTM are met, the noseweight must be considered. This is the vertical load the trailer bears down on the vehicle. The towbar’s ‘D’ value or vehicle’s limit – shown on the towbar’s label or van’s handbook – whichever is less, must not be exceeded. Best practice is for the noseweight to be between 5% and 10% of the trailer’s MAM if the vehicle allows it, and to then deduct twice that from the vehicle’s maximum payload, to prevent overloading the van’s rear axle. When loading wheeled or tracked plant, put the trailer’s rear steady legs and jockey wheel down for better stability and place the machine centrally over the trailer’s axles. Dedicated plant trailers are designed this way with the bucket rest at the front helping to fix the machine’s position, on a six-metre long flatbed, don’t just drive it right at the front – think balance. Likewise don’t load all the paving slabs up against the headboard – although that seems the most logical. Secure palletised or bagged loads with ratchet straps, plant which has lashing eyes is better with chain tensioners and wheeled plant with car-transporter style wheel straps. Check all lashings again after the first few miles. Overloading brings stiff penalties and just 100kg more cargo can mean several offences, in differing permutations, exceeding the trailer MAM, either trailer axle, vehicle rear axle, or GTM.

Out and about

Once on the road consider the change to the vehicle’s characteristics. Its increased length is actually not the biggest issue, but allow for wider turns and ensure the mirrors let you see where its wheels approach the kerb. Mass is the main consideration, once more. Consider how the van behaves from empty to fully laden, and add that on again. Stopping distance is the biggest consideration as over-run brakes are very effective, but the trailer must be slowed initially. Equally the combination’s ability to move out into a roundabout or busy traffic takes some time to get used to.

Security is a big issue with trailers. Alarms, immobilisers, trackers and aftermarket armoured locks have increased van security immensely but trailers are a different challenge. Most factory-fitted towbar and electrics packages will sound the van’s alarm if the trailer is unplugged. LCV security specialist Lock4Vans has developed a van alarm which does the same by proximity to a hidden chip.. It can also be used on plant, equipment and toolboxes, triggering the alarm if they are moved from the van. Physical security is still the best option, hitch locks and wheel clamps are a good start, if the trailer is used infrequently, put it on axle stands and remove its wheels, you can even add locks to prevent a thief fitting their own wheels! If possible take the minidigger off the trailer, and park it with the arm down through the A-frame of the trailer’s drawbar, or park it halfway up the ramps, bucket dug into the ground, and a chain lock around it and the trailer’s chassis. DataTag your trailer, likewise all plant and block it in its parking space with other vehicles if possible. The old ‘lock-it or lose-it’ applies here. Remove the trailer’s number plate too, the police should be more inclined to pull it over. Finally, we should point out that the current crop of electric vans have only a fraction of the towing capability of the equivalent diesel models, a great concern for operators who currently tow more than 1,000kgs.