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Warning over high number of towing related road accident claims

The show season is almost here and you may be thinking of dusting off your horse trailer. Before you take your trailer out make sure you familiarise yourself with the law and consider whether you might benefit from further training to protect the horse(s) in your trailer and other road users, including other riders.

Likewise, whilst out hacking, you may see an increase in the number of individuals towing caravans. You should be aware that vehicles towing trailers or caravans may be inexperienced in doing so and may not drive suitably when passing.

You may recall our recent settlement, as published in Horse and Hound and on the Horses and Road Safety Awareness forum. Our client, who was wearing hi-vis clothing, was riding her horse on a straight section of a narrow country lane. On hearing a vehicle approach from behind she glanced over her shoulder by which time it was alongside her. The car was towing a caravan. There was no time for her to attempt to move out of the way and the speed and proximity of the car spooked her horse. The horse spun around and as it did it struck the side of the caravan with its hindquarters. The horse lost its footing and our client was thrown onto the road. She received compensation for her physical and psychological symptoms.

Unfortunately, the above example is just one of a number of cases that we have dealt with all of which had almost identical circumstances. We hope that by raising awareness of the dangers of towing a trailer/caravan, without training or experience, more people will consider voluntary training to reduce the risk to themselves and other road users.

Changes in the law have attempted to ensure that those towing are competent to do so. Your driving licence shows the categories of vehicles you are entitled to drive and the size of trailer you are allowed to tow. The rules relating to what you can tow without further training depend on when you received your driving licence:

  1. Before 1st January 1997
    • You are legally entitled to drive a vehicle and trailer up to a combined weight of 8.25 tonnes (8250kg).
  2. 2nd January 1997 to 18th January 2013
    • You are legally entitled to drive a vehicle up to 3.5 tonnes towing a 750kg trailer.
    • You can tow a trailer of over 750kg provided the combined weight of the trailer and towing vehicle is no more than 3.5 tonnes.
  3. 19th January 2013 to date
    • You are legally entitled to tow trailers weighing no more than 750kg.
    • You can tow trailers of over 750kg provided the combined weight of the trailer and towing vehicle is no more than 3.5 tonnes.

The difference between 2 and 3 above is relatively minor, with the major distinction being between licences pre-dating and post-dating 1997. These changes were brought into place to implement the Second EU Directive which was charged with (among other things) improving road safety; however it did not have retrospective effect.

In practice this means that, though the pre-1997 licences will eventually be phased out, there will effectively be two main categories of licence for the foreseeable future (given that the youngest people with the old licence type would be 35 years old). To put the rules for pre-1997 driving licences into context, cars usually weigh between 1 to 1.5 tonnes and 4x4s between 1.5 to 2 tonnes; meaning drivers with pre-1997 licences can legally tow trailers of up to a weight of around 6.5 to 7 tonnes without any training or prior experience of doing so. In practice, this can often lead to a number of preventable accidents.

From our experience a number of such drivers fail to allow riders enough space or travel past riders too quickly because they have no experience of the fact that towing a trailer affects most aspects of driving, including handling and the height, width and length of your vehicle.

Further, Department of Transport statistics show that there were 561 reported accidents in 2013 where a car or van skidded or overturned while towing a caravan or trailer. Only 4% of these accidents occurred during adverse weather conditions (ice, rain or snow) and only 3 (0.5%) occurred due to road surface issues (oil, diesel or mud) suggesting the vast majority occurred due to driver error.

Other Requirements:

  • The maximum width for trailers is 2.55 metres. The maximum length of a trailer for vehicles weighing up to 3.5 tonnes is 7 metres. Be aware that many American made trailers can exceed these dimensions and are not road legal in the UK.
  • Most vehicles have a maximum weight that they can safely tow. This is usually listed in the vehicle handbook or can be found online. Sometimes it may be listed on the vehicle identification number plate on the vehicle as ‘gross train weight’ (this is the weight of your vehicle and the trailer when both are fully loaded).
  • Your tow bar needs to meet EU regulations and be the correct type for your vehicle (both of these will be identified on a label on the tow bar), unless your car was first used before 1st August 1998 in which case there are, unfortunately, no such safety requirements.
  • You should have towing mirrors if the trailer or caravan is wider than the rear of your vehicle, or if the trailer causes you to have an inadequate view of the road behind you. Failure to have towing mirrors in the above circumstances would be dangerous and could lead to prosecution by the police in the form of 3 points on your licence and a fine of up to £1000.00.
  • Any trailers weighing over 750kg (when loaded) must have a working brake system and be in good working order.
  • You must display the same number plate as the towing vehicle on the back of the trailer.

Practical Points:

1. For riders

  • Be vigilant on the roads and be aware that vehicles with trailers (or caravans) might be inexperienced and travel too quickly or too closely to you and your horse;
  •  Consider investing in a head camera;
  •  Always wear hi-vis (such as V-Bandz) when hacking out.

2. For those towing trailers

  • Check that you are legally entitled to tow your trailer;
  • Ensure your trailer is regularly serviced and meets all legal requirements;
  • Be cautious when passing riders and livestock, always adhere to the Highway Code which requires you to leave plenty of room, drive slowly and be prepared to stop;
  • Consider voluntary training to build your competency level.

Finally, if the worst happens and you are involved in a road traffic accident the below steps should be taken immediately (even if the third party fleas the scene and cannot be traced), to provide the rider with the best prospects of pursuing a successful claim for injury and any associated financial losses.

  • It goes without saying but in case of serious injury then someone needs to call 999;
  • Even if it’s not a 999 scenario you should report the accident to the police using the 101 number;
  • Take details of any other parties involved in the accident. The more information you can get the better but you need at least their name, address and vehicle registration number (if relevant and if the third party has not fled the scene);
  • See it there are any witnesses who will give you their details. Here you want name, address and phone numbers;
  • Take photographs of the accident scene and any vehicles and animals involved. In the case of vehicles you should try to get pictures of the number plate, any damage, and its position on the road.

Talk to one of our Horse Accident Claims Solicitors

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