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Getting to grips with towing law

When it comes to towing a trailer for business use with a 4x4, car, van or double cab pickup, there are generous exemptions helping agriculture when it comes to tachographs and drivers hours.

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But there will be many agri-related businesses - including machinery manufacturers and dealers for example - which can fall foul of such exemptions when it comes to towing.


Our advice is to take a good look at your business’ towing requirements and either fully comply with drivers’ hours regulations, or rearrange your affairs to take best advantage of the loopholes that do exist.


If the combined maximum permissible gross weight of the vehicle and its trailer exceeds 3,500kg, the authorities will be looking to see if you have a tachograph fitted to your double cab pick-up or 4x4 when towing for commercial purposes.


But the ability to tow a trailer and its load using a 4x4, car, van or pickup depends on several factors and a critical element is the type of driving licence held (see panel).


As the entitlement to tow varies according to when the driving test was taken, the key point is younger drivers operate under a different set of guidelines to the older generation.

VIN plate

The second element is towing capacity, which can be found on the vehicle’s VIN plate, in the vehicle handbook, and by doing some mental arithmetic.


But the third, much cloudier, aspect is what you are doing with the trailer. If you are towing commercial goods for hire and reward, the chances are you will need to record drivers’ hours, which means using a tachograph system.


But there are a few exemptions that need to be fully understood before you throw in the towel.


European and British bureaucracy comes with its own language. Maximum Authorised Mass (MAM) is the term used to describe the maximum gross weight of a vehicle or a trailer including the load being carried.


This is also known as gross vehicle weight (GVW) or maximum permissible weight. It will be shown on a metal plate or sticker fitted to the vehicle, usually under the bonnet.


The plate should also show a gross train weight (GTW) or gross combination weight (GCW), which is the all-up total of the laden vehicle and laden trailer, also, confusingly known as the MAM of the combination too. Plates on commercial vehicles, including double cab pickups, will also show maximum permissible axle weights.


Trailers fall into three basic categories. A category 01 trailer is an unbraked unit up to 750kg MAM/GTW with the smallest, most inadequate looking wheels and tyres you ever saw. It lacks the key element needed to exceed that 750kg threshold - brakes.


A category 02 trailer is the most common type found on farms and is a braked trailer with auto reverse and over-run brakes which can operate at an MAM up to 3,500kg.

Maximise capacity

The 02-type trailer comes in all shapes, formats and sizes - some have up to three axles. Though if you want to maximise your carrying capability, the trailer you pull needs to be manufactured light enough, yet strong enough, to withstand being operated at an all-up weight of 3.5 tonnes.


Finally, there is the 03-type which gains large goods vehicle status, which is outside the scope of this feature.


But you cannot simply load the trailer up to its maximum permissible weight and drive off; you need to consider the towing vehicle. A simple rule of thumb is to subtract the towing vehicle’s GVW from its GCW, the remainder being a permissible MAM for the trailer.


The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) tells us it is permissible to tow a trailer with a plated gross weight higher than the towing capacity of the vehicle, as long as their combined weight does not exceed the gross train weight.


This applies even if adding the two gross weights together exceeds the train weight figure, says VOSA, because this relates to the actual ‘in use’ weight of the vehicle and trailer combination including any load.


VOSA is technically correct in what it says but, remember, the Agency is only talking about permissible towing weights.


Towing an empty trailer behind a heavyweight 4x4 is likely to get you pulled by VOSA and the Police, not necessarily to check weights, but to check you are recording drivers’ hours correctly. The key point regarding tachograph regulations, for those who fall under its scope, is they are not based on actual weights but theoretical maximums.


PART TWO: In next week’s FG (January 7), we look at towing vehicle and tachograph regulations, plus exemptions


Drivers entitlements explained

Driver’s entitlements explained

Drivers who passed a car test before January 1, 1997 keep their existing entitlement, though their class A entitlement will have been reclassified as category B and B+E, along with category C1 and C1E on the new style licence.


This allows a GTW of 7.5 tonnes, with a trailer MAM of 3.5-tonnes. These drivers can also tow an unbraked trailer up to a MAM of 750kg behind a 7.5-tonne truck.


Things are trickier for drivers who passed their car test after January 1, 1997, now mostly in their 20s and 30s - earning just the basic category B entitlement. This allows a GTW of just 3.5 tonnes, limiting these individuals to towing very limited loads.


Category B drivers can also tow an unbraked trailer with a MAM of 750kg behind vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes. And if the 3.5-tonne GTW (using a trailer over 750kg) is going to be exceeded, then the driver will need to pass an additional category E trailer test, to give them B+E status on their licence.


Drivers with a standard licence who passed their test after January 1, 1997 are specifically banned from towing anything heavier than the unladen kerbside weight of the towing vehicle and must stay within a 3,500kg GTW ceiling.


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