NATM Answers : Are You Trailer Safety Aware?

What do you see wrong with the way the safety chains and other trailer safety equipment are set-up in the image?  That’s the question we asked in the previous article.  The image is a screenshot of a YouTube video by NATM, the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers.

NATM is a good organization, and they do a lot of good, so I don’t mean any disrespect by putting up this post.  However, I do want to raise awareness and education about the practicalities of dealing with trailer safety.

If you did not read the first article where we ask the question, then please do that first.  We asked the question as part of an awareness game.  Can you find 4 (of 6) items regarding safety in the image?  This answers in this article will make a lot more sense if you read the other article first.

Here is the close-up image again, but this time with several things marked.

NATM Trailer Safety Screenshot

What’s Wrong For Trailer Safety?

Here is my list along with some explanation of why, of priority, and of what to do different to make it right.  The list is in order of what I think is most important.  There is room for discussion about priority since they are all important, so if you want to argue the list, please feel free to add a comment below.

If you have some similar things going on with your trailer, it might be time to make a few important changes.

  1. Chain Length.

    No question, these chains are too long.  In the video he says they should not drag the ground, yet these are almost on the ground.  A good bump, and they will hit.

    Crash Did Not Have To Be This BadIn an emergency, any extra chain length gives added degrees of freedom for the trailer to cause damage.  Longer chains make the trailer harder to control.  No question, chain length is one of the most important things for safety if the unthinkable happens and the trailer comes loose.

    I will also point out – in the video he talks about crossing the chains to cradle the tongue, which is nice in concept, but with chains this long, the tongue will be hard on the ground long before the chains come tight enough to cradle anything.  Furthermore, the chains must stretch back quite a ways in order to come tight enough to cradle.  More on that below.

    Chains should be as short as practical while still allowing the vehicle to turn.  Here are some free plans for a simple, adjustable chain anchor system.

  2. Location of Tow Vehicle Chain Attachment Points.

    Understandably, as a trailer builder we don’t necessarily have control on where the chains attach.  That is on the tow vehicle side.  However, the attachment points on this truck are too far apart.  The issue relates back to the length of the chains.  If the attachment points on the tow vehicle are wide like in the image, then the chains must be longer.  There is a balance in getting some separation, for trailer control, yet having them close enough so it does not unnecessary require longer chains.

    I made this priority 2 because it directly relates to priority 1.  Looking back, I don’t think we have this in any of our other trailer safety chain articles.  Well, now you know.

  3. Length of Electric Cable.

    Priority 3 is the length of the electric attachment cable.  Not because it’s fundamentally too long or too short, but because it is too short for the rest of the conditions.  Because of the long chains, if the hitch were to come off, it would pull this cable out before the chains come tight.  Why does that matter?  If this cable comes out, the driver no longer has control of the trailer brakes.  Also, the trailer lights will quit working so there is no warning to vehicles that might be coming behind.

    Think about the practical scenario where the hitch comes off the ball, and the chains stay connected.  That is what we hope happens.  Yet, as this one is set up, they would lose the brakes, but the cable to the pin switch is longer than the chain so the breakaway system will not actuate, leaving the massive trailer free to do what it wants.  The only way this can end is having the tow vehicle slow down, and the trailer bashing into the back of it.  That can cause both the trailer and the tow vehicle to lose control.

    So, the electrical cable must be long enough to easily stay connected even when the chains are to their limit AND when the tongue sways as far right and as far left as the chains will allow.  That way, the tow vehicle driver has at least some control of the trailer brakes, and cars around have some warning because the lights can still shine.

  4. Breakaway Cable Length.

    The pin switch in the image attaches to the tow vehicle with a small cable.  The idea – if the trailer does come loose, then the cable will pull the pin, which applies the trailer brakes.  That’s how the breakaway system works.  Well, if it is set up right.

    There is some argument in the industry about how long the cable should be.  Some say if the main eclectic connector is attached, then it’s better for the driver to control the brakes.  The “breakaway” then only works if you lose the chains and all – a total breakaway.  Others argue the trailer brakes should act as quickly as possible.  I can go either way, but personally lean toward having the pin switch cable short.

    Separation of the hitch and ball happens too often, as human error.  Having chains break is a secondary, mechanical strength failure.  If the first one happens, it can cause the second, but only if the chains are weak.  It is far less likely to break both chains, than to have the hitch come off the ball.  Therefore, if the breakaway system is going to do its job, it should act instantaneously as the hitch comes loose.

    In the photo it is a little hard to see the full cable.  However, it looks like it leaves the pin switch (circle marked 6), then does a loop by the chain before coming to the chain connection point (circle marked 1).  That loop makes the cable really long, which means this breakaway system won’t act until the trailer is a long way from the tow vehicle.

    We can easily argue a priority swap for #3 and #4.  If you put these in either order, give yourself credit.

  5. Chain Connector Location.

    The chain attachment on this trailer is under the tongue.  As explained with the Chain Attachment Rules, this not a good choice.  That means the chain attachment – the very thing we are relying on to keep the trailer in some kind of control – is grinding off even as we are relying on it to save the day.  Bad idea.

    It’s good to have the chain connection lower on the sides of the tongue – both to minimize chain length and to maximize the chain angle if the hitch comes off.  However, the chain anchors should not be the low point.  They shouldn’t even be really close to being the low point.  Read the article for a lot more information on how to attach trailer safety chains.  Also, for the rules that help make the attachment safe.

    This is priority 5 because it is probably not catastrophic failure impending.  Will it damage to the chains?  Yes.  Hopefully you can stop before it grinds all the way through.

  6. Orientation of the Pin Switch.

    OK, this is a minor one.  For best action of the pin switch, it should be nearly horizontal.  Pointing down like this means the pin will pull at an angle running the risk of breaking the pin or switch as it is violently yanked from it’s hole.  Remember, by the time it pulls out, the tongue will be nearly on the ground which exaggerates the angle.  We don’t want them pointing up because they will collect water – which is never good for electrical things – but we also do not want them pointing down so much.

    Best to put them at a slight angle down.  Also best to mount them higher, above the chain attachment so they don’t get tangled.

    I give this one last priority because it probably won’t stop it from working.  The switch might just spin on the bolt and pull the pin just fine.  We don’t know, but having the pin pointing down is directionally incorrect.

So that’s my list.  How many did you find?  Did you get the order of priority?  Thank you for playing along!

Let’s Talk About Lengths

When setting up trailer chains and cables, a good way has these lengths:

  1. Connection of the hitch to the ball is the base standard.
  2. If the hitch comes off, the breakaway switch (cable to the pin switch) should be next in line to pull.
  3. Then, the trailer safety chains.  And, they should be the strong point where the failures stop.
  4. The Electric cable to the trailer connector should be long enough to remain connected while the chains are attached.  That might mean you need a bungee or something to snap loose so the electrical cable has enough length, but still not allow it to drag low.  Be creative with your rig.

The order above will help you recover if such a thing happens.  The best case is the trailer brakes skid and you bring the rig to a stop without damage to the trailer or the tow vehicle.  New tires might be in order, but that’s a small price compared to having the rear of your car smashed in – or something much worse.

Comments And Peanut Gallery

Now, if you think I’m all wet with this trailer safety stuff?  Please leave a comment and explain why.  I have never claimed to be the expert of all things safety, and I’m super open to learning.  Let me, and all our readers, know what you think.

Also, if you have a really sharp eye and have noticed something I missed, I want to know about it.  Please leave a comment about what you see!!  Thank you.

A BIG Thank You! to NATM for playing along as we have a little fun while reminding us all about the need for properly setting our trailer safety equipment.

I Wish You All Good Luck With Getting Your Rig Setup Right!

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