Ushering in the vacation season, the American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates 36.1 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from their home (more than 8 out of 10 by car) during Memorial Day weekend this year – a 1.5% increase over last year due to a particularly harsh winter and modest improvement in the economy. Along with the headache of clogged freeways, many travelers will be towing an assortment of recreational vehicles behind them such as boats, campers, and ATVs, adding another layer of danger to the already hazardous roadways.


For one particular family, Memorial Day weekend is a painful reminder of just how dangerous pulling a trailer can be. On a Saturday during Memorial Day weekend in 2010, a Minnesota father was taking his two children to the library when a flatbed trailer attached to an oncoming pickup truck unhitched and crashed, hitch-first into the the family’s car killing both children.

A state patrol investigation revealed that the hitch was missing both a clip from the bottom of a hitch pin, and one of two required safety chains. The Minnesota state trooper who conducted the investigation said the incident “should never have happened…this was completely avoidable, in every sense of the word.”


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, this is not just an issue in the summer. In fact, according to their statistics, more than 20,000 people require medical attention every year for accidents involving trailers towed by passenger vehicles. Eight deaths and more than 700 incidents of property damage caused by vehicles towing trailers occur each week.

In addition to improper use, some trailer hitches are poorly designed and have even been recalled. Possible reasons for a trailer to cause an accident include:

A rusted, cracked, corroded, poorly designed or otherwise defective hitch or locking system.
Improper weight distribution.
The hitch was not fitted on the ball correctly.
Damaged or missing safety chains.
The locking system was either not used or was missing a component such as a pin.
Trailer “sway” which is the propensity for some trailers, under certain conditions, to sway from side to side behind the vehicle hauling it.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) a driver can take the following actions to ensure safety while driving a vehicle with a trailer attached:

Use the driving gear that the manufacturer recommends for towing.
Drive at moderate speeds. This will place less strain on your tow vehicle and trailer. Trailer instability (sway) is more likely to occur as speed increases.
Avoid sudden stops and starts that can cause skidding, sliding, or jackknifing.
Avoid sudden steering maneuvers that might create sway or undue side force on the trailer.
Slow down when traveling over bumpy roads, railroad crossings, and ditches.
Make wider turns at curves and corners.
Allow considerably more distance for stopping.
When passing a slower vehicle or changing lanes, signal well in advance and make sure you allow extra distance to clear the vehicle before you pull back into the lane.
Pass on level terrain with plenty of clearance. Avoid passing on steep upgrades or downgrades.

Whether you are planning on towing your boat or camper to the lake for some well-deserved rest and recreation this summer, or just hauling some junk to the dump, it’s crucial to the lives and safety of everyone on the road (including your own) to make sure you are using your trailer and hitch properly. In addition to reading the owner’s manual, here are a couple of in-depth resources to help you out:

Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s pamphlet “General Requirements for Non-Commercial Trailers on Minnesota Roadways:”

The NHTSA’s comprehensive brochure on using trailers including a pre-departure safety checklist and additional safety tips: