About a third of South Africa’s motorists have car insurance and, as part of the package, can avail themselves of roadside assistance options that usually include a few free tow events per year per car. Most of these drivers don’t need to figure out how to tow a car safely, because professional tow services take care of that. But what about the remaining two thirds of uninsured motorists? They have no choice but to make their own towing plans. However, do they know what is safe and legal when it comes to towing?
The first thing a motorist should ask before towing a car is what does the law say? The National Road Traffic Act, 1996 (Act No. 93 of 1996) and the National Road Traffic Regulations (2000) mention that you are allowed to tow another vehicle provided a tow bar, chain or tow rope does not exceed 3.5 metres. Another legal requirement is that a towed vehicle must be driven by a licenced driver and must be safely connected to the towing car. There are also requirements for the type of material that the tow bar, chain, rope should be. It is not ok to be towing with just any rope that you find to tie the two cars together.
A real issue with some modern cars is that their brakes no longer function once the car engine is switched off, this then leaves the tow bar as the only towing option.
Being in a car towed by another car using a 3.5-metre rope or chain can be quite challenging. It means your stopping reaction time has to be really fast should the towing car have to suddenly make an emergency stop. Just to give you an idea, a car covers a distance of 3.5 metres in 1 second when travelling at only 13 km/hour. The above-mentioned Act states that a towing car must not exceed 30 km/hour if a rope or chain is used. However, if a tow bar is used, the towing vehicle may exceed 30 km/hour.
One reason that comes to mind when using, for example, an illegal 5-metre tow rope or chain, is that the driver in the towed car has to watch out for whether a considerable slack is developing between the rope/chain and the car when, for instance the driver is slowly negotiating a sharp corner. In such a case, the front wheel of the towed car could drive over the slack rope lying on the road. This could spell disaster, because when the rope under the front wheel of the towed car is suddenly pulled taut by the towing car, the one side of the towed car could unexpectedly shoot up, completely destabilising it. Alternatively, an inferior quality or incorrect type of tow rope or chain could snap.
The driver of the towed car must also constantly prevent too much slack from developing, even more so when the tow rope or chain used is too long.. An example of this is when a towed car stops too close behind the towing car at a stop street, and this then creates too much slack in the tow rope or chain between the cars. Thus, when the towing car drives off again, the slack is quickly taken up and causes the towed car to lunge or jerk forwards unnaturally. This places great strain on the tow rope or chain as well as on the vehicle structures.
Remember that when towing a car using a tow bar, the mass of the towed car must be added to the mass of the towing car. When towing with a rope, the towing car can suddenly stop, as if no one is behind it, but a towing car with a tow bar has the full mass of the towed car pushing it from behind when trying to do an emergency stop. This means that the towing car will take much longer to come to a complete halt compared to when it is not towing. In addition, only the towing car is able to apply brakes, as the towed car cannot and should not brake. This is not the case when towing a trailer, as its brakes are synchronised with those of the towing car. In addition, a trailer usually would not be as heavy as a towed car.
The Road Traffic Act also stipulates that both vehicles must comply with the correct gross vehicle mass, the gross combination mass, and power to mass ratio, just to mention a few. To illustrate the point, you can’t have a small 1-litre car towing a huge 4x4 SUV. It would be disastrous to say the least. In addition, the towing car could seriously damage its engine and suspension.
Furthermore, a small towing car may not be able to come to a stop over a safe distance when using a tow bar unless the driver knows that it will take longer to slow the vehicles down now that it is not just their own vehicle they need to think about. The greater the combined weight of the two cars in question, the greater the distance and time needed for coming to a complete stop.
Manufacturers of some makes of cars stipulate that such cars are not legally allowed to tow any other vehicle. This has to do with their design and structural stability. Before fitting a tow bar to your small car, please find out from your garage or manufacturer whether your car happens to be one of them. If you do fit a tow bar, you may not only jeopardise the warranty of your car, but you will also compromise everyone’s safety when or if towing another car.
From the foregoing, it is clear that there is a lot more to towing a car than what the average motorist might realise. Think carefully before you tow your friend’s car, and your journey will be a lot safer.