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Hitch Safety

by: L.D. Steele

My background:

I am degreed in both law and civil engineering, a member of several safety organizations and an expert in accident reconstruction, accident investigation, highway safety design, motor vehicle crash analysis and legal procedure. As such I am called on by law enforcement agencies, courts, insurance companies and lawyers to determine the cause of accidents involving loss of life or serious injury. Minor accidents does not justify the expense of my going across country to check a fender bender. I have over 35 years experience in this field.

In the scope of my work, I have had the occasion to examine the remains of several camping units, both motorhomes and travel trailers. Also I have looked at each accident site as part of my investigation and photographs of such will accompany my reports to the requesting person.

Many of these accidents were due to just plain stupidity, others were carelessness, others were caused by people trying to save money and I have yet to see an accident that did not have a negligent cause.

Improper Hitches

One of the principle causes of accidents with travel trailers is improper hitching. My last such accident to examine was due to a person with a bumper pull travel trailer not wanting to pay for a weight distributing hitch. He used a large ball on a boat trailer bolt on hitch. After travelling over a dip in the highway, the hitch came loose from the truck and caused the trailer to veer into the opposing lane, striking another auto head on. The owner of the travel trailer said he did not want to spend the extra money for a proper hitch. His way of doing things had a final cost of two lives and a totalled travel trailer.

The above example about the boat trailer hitch is typical. This hitch had everything needed. It was bolted to the bumper, it had spaces for chains and it had a firm ball with a decent shank. Yet, the proper hitch for a boat & trailer was a far cry for safe towing of a travel trailer. However, it is difficult to suggest a person buy a weight distribution hitch for a 1700 pound boat.

There is not a "proper connection" that covers all things. What is proper for one may not be for another.

Improper Hitching

Another accident happened due a camper being in a hurry to hook up during a rain storm. He lowered the trailer tongue onto the ball connection, never bothering to set the bars or sway control. As he was going down a moderate hill inside a metropolitan area, the trailer lifted off the ball. It turned sideways in the road and was struck by another auto. Saving 5 minutes of getting wet in a rain caused a lady to lose her life.

Sway Bars

The one accident I see repeatedly but usually not fatal is where someone does not use their sway bar properly. At some point, the trailer and tow vehicle will turn over. Usually this involves serious injury to the occupants of the towing vehicle.

Vehicle Separation

The most common accidents I see though are not ones where the vehicles seperate from each other. They are the ones where someone has a small pickup truck hooked to a 27 foot travel trailer. On the open road the speed builds up slowly but eventually hits speeds of near 70 miles per hour. Then either a vehicle stops or slows in front of them, an animal runs across the path of the vehicle, a sharp curves approaches or else their interstate exit comes unexpectedly. The brakes are applied and the tow vehicle is not stopping. Instead the trailer pushes the vehicle until it hits something, burns out the brakes or causes the towing vehicle to turn sideways, go out of control and overturn. It is assured that serious injury or death will occur to someone in this situation.

These accidents are caused by using improper hitches, improper towing vehicles, overloading the limits of a towing vehicle and simple lack of taking the time to properly hook up a trailer to the tow vehicle. I have seen each of these accidents several times. Different drivers, different roads, different trailers. Yet each one is basically the same root cause. The facts differs but the cause is the same. Unfortunately, the results are also the same. pain, death and misery.

Also, these accidents are not limited to travel trailers. I looked at one yesterday where a bulldozer fell off a 40 foot float in a curve. That would not have been a problem had it not have landed on top of another auto coming from the approaching direction.

Safety Chains

Most safety chains are not strong enough to hold a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds, traveling at speeds approaching highway limits coming apart from the tow vehicle. In fact, safety chains are usually hooked up in the wrong manner anyway.

The hooks should be connected through the bottom of the fastening toward the travel trailer so the opening of the hook faces the trailer instead of facing the ground.

Talk about a jolt, have a heavy trailer come loose and let the chains tighten. Before they break, the tow vehicle will usually be out of control from the sudden shift in weight, change in momentum, movement of the mass and the driver's unexpected event.

If a chain gets the weight of a travel trailer all at once, it is just like trying to use your truck to jerk a tree down with a chain. The chain ratings usually are in the 2 ton range. Yet this is for a constant load and not a snatch weight. When subjected to a sudden weight shift,there are usually one of three things that can happen. The fastening devices (hooks) on either the town vehicle will break, the fastening devices (usually large bolts) on the trailer will break or else the chain will break.

A dangling chain is serious trouble. It causes sparks, a piece of it can come loose, hit a windshield and pass into the head of an occupant. This is much like a small rock being struck by the blade of a power lawn mower. The projectile becomes a bullet. Even if it does not pierce the windshield of a vehicle, the windshield breaking suddenly can cause the driver to lose control.

I know from experience that I have seen more instances of breaking fastening devices than breaking chains. I have also seen more chains break and fail than I have seen where they worked as designed.

Now, for the part we all want to hear of.

Insurance and Legal

Legal ramifications of being involved in an accident can be costly.

In these difficult financial times, it is simple for someone to want to sue a person for damages. Winning such a case is not as easy.

Any person can sue another for any reason. Proving the case can be difficult unless proof of negligence can be shown. Negligence can be in the form or commision (failure to properly hitch the trailer to the tow vehicle, using a vehicle that is under rated for towing) or ommision (failure to use common sense, disregard of safe handling procedures and practices).

Insurance companies will usually settle cases long before court but some cases do go to court. The insurance company will provide you an attorney. If you lose the case, they will pay up to the limit of your insurance policy.

Anything past the limits of your policy can come from several other sources such as your homeowners policy or your financial holdings.

A person seeking such awards will have to have injuries that call for the amount they seek. Do not beleive that you get a million dollars for coffee spills. It is not that simple and does not happen.

In the large settlements, you have death or permanant disabilities. These are the ones that can affect each of us.

Vehicle liability policies are purchased in varying amounts, depending on how much you want to spend and the amount of risk the company is willing to take on you.

Louisiana has a Financial Responsibility law (as do most states)that requires a 10/20/10 minimun policy (state laws vary)in order to operate a car on Louisiana roads. This is way low compared to most states but means that for any ONE person injured in an acident through the negligence of the policy holder the insurance company will pay up to $10,000. In any single accident, the company will not pay out more than a total of $20,000 no matter how many are injured. They will not pay more than $10,000 in property damage for a single accident.

Now consider if your trailer comes loose and strikes another auto, breaking the legs of the driver (say he is a welder) and destroying his 1999 Ford pickup. He loses 4 months from work. His lost pay amounts to $12,000, his medical bills are $16,000, his financial, consortium, pain and suffering claim exceeds $8,000, his $14,000 truck is a total loss. This means his total personal injury is worth about $36,000 and his propery damage is set at $14,000 with an added 30 days of car rental of $600.

In Louisiana, the average policy holder that simply complies with the state law will have to come up with about $26,000 from their pockets or some other source for his personal injury and $4,600 for his property damage.

Many are under insured for the risks we take. The above example used is not unusual. In fact, it is low.

This is why we need to be very careful in our actions, in doing things properly and we need to carry adequate insurance coverage that will protect us from financial ruin in case we are involved in some form of accident.

Past the safe handling and operation of our campers and getting past the financial responsibility part of ownership of the rig, we have a criminal situation to examine.

Many of us get away to relax and lose the pressures of home and work. During this period of relaxation (I have had some experiences out camping that were not relaxation), we will often have a few drinks of alcoholic beverages. This is fine and I do it also.

It is when we go past the social drink that causes problems. This past week I watched a couple that had way too many drinks working on the electrical system of their motorhome. Both had slurred speech, impaired motion and slowed reflexes. They should not have been working on electrical boxes in this condition. Yet they also left the campsite driving the motorhome in this condition. This is not uncommon and we have all seen such.

If they had been involved in an accident, the result is jail time, a record that stays with them for life and negligence for their actions.

In Louisiana, we have what I call a "redneck drinking mentality." I do not mean this in a disrespectful manner. It is simply that the person works hard, gets off work and stops by for a couple of quick drinks. Say he weighs about 170 and has not eaten since the baloney sandwich he had for lunch some 6 hours earlier. He has three beers on his way home. In most cases, he will feel like he has all his abilities, he is in control of everything, he knows who he is, what he is doing and where he is going. This is not the case. This man is on the borderline of being legally intoxicated. His mental rationing is the last thing to go before he passes out. At this stage of intoxication, he has slowed reflexes, slurred speech and defective mental reasoning. He feels fine but those around him are begining to notice a persoanlity change. He should not be driving but he does.

As we enjoy our free time, we need to know that there are limits to everything. Drinking is a subject that is seldom mentioned in camping articles but is commonly done at campsites. It can affect our actions for hours after the last drink was consumed. We do not need to be driving, hooking up our campers, making repairs or assisting others when we have had more than a couple of drinks.

Camping is fun. Very expensive but fun. We should all enjoy it but do so with safety in mind. We need to think about our actions and the potential result of our actions. If our reducing our alcohol intake will reduce personal injury or death, it is well worth doing. We will have more fun, enjoy our time and leave with pleasant memories instead of remorse.

Experts in the field are often asked questions and we study such events in an effort to answer a question intelligently. Admittedly, I have been educated past my level of intelligence.

Reseach has found that proportionately more trailers are involved in overturn / separation accidents than are motorhomes. Many, if not most motorhomes pull a toad or a boat. Yet, very few are ever involved in any accident of severity.

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