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Anyone who has towed a travel trailer, or even thought of towing a trailer, has no doubt contemplated the worst-case scenario. Take your pick: jackknifing on a busy interstate, a run-away trailer on a steep road, a rollover on a mountain pass. It doesn't take much of an imagination to conjure up a nightmare.

The truth is, however, that travel trailer accidents are rare. That's largely because trailer owners understand the importance of safety. They've grown accustomed to proceeding through extensive safety checklists before they get behind the wheel. Towing a trailer is not for the foolhardy, but neither is it as demanding as flying a 747. With common sense and the proper training, almost all responsible drivers can learn to safely tow.

Any discussion of towing begins with the hitch that connects the tow vehicle and the trailer. Hitches are rated in terms of their load capacity. Make sure that your tow vehicle's hitch is strong enough to pull your trailer. For example, if you're trailer weighs 5,000 lbs., the load capacity of your hitch should be rated at 6,000 lbs. or more. Don't cut corners.

Hooking up your hitch is also critical. The coupling of the trailer must completely cover the ball of the hitch. (A little grease on the ball will help.) Once the tow vehicle and trailer are joined, secure the latch with a padlock and check that all nuts and bolts are tight.

Next comes the safety chains or cables. If the hitch gives way, the safety chains are meant to hold the tongue of the trailer above the roadway until you can pull over. For that reason, the length and strength of the chains is important. Make sure that the chains are long enough so as not to impede turning but not so long that they drag on the ground. Attach the chains to the frame of the tow vehicle, not to the hitch, and be sure to cross them under the trailer's tongue.

Now, plug in the electrical connections and test the safety lights. Check the trailer brakes and ensure that the break-away system is functioning properly. Finally, step back and make sure that the tow vehicle and the trailer are more or less level. If there's a pronounced dip where the hitch and tongue meet, you've got a problem. By the same token, make sure that the hitch is supporting sufficient trailer weight to prevent sway. Typically, 10-15 percent of the trailer's weight should be placed on the hitch. A quick test drive will likely give you a feel for load distribution. If there's too much weight toward the rear of the trailer, the trailer will tend to sway and swerve. If there's too much weight toward the front, your tow vehicle will feel sluggish and tight.

There are also more mundane issues involved in towing safety, such as tires and mirrors. Properly inflated tires on both the tow vehicle and the trailer are essential. Keep in mind that heavier loads demand greater tire pressure. Get yourself a trustworthy pressure gauge and put it to good use. Likewise, towing means that you're going to rely more than ever on your sideview mirrors. Generally, the rule of thumb is the bigger the better. Convex mirrors are a good idea for minimizing blind spots. From the driver's seat, you should be able to see the length of the trailer and at least 200 feet beyond from either sideview mirror. Adjust your mirrors until you feel comfortable.

Of course, this article is hardly the last word in towing safety. Instead, think of it as a start in developing your own safety checklist.

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