Distribute tongue weight, not towing liability; new pickups have higher towing capability, but they still need to be “properly-equipped”
By G.R. Whale
Special to HardWorkingTrucks.Com
Chances are you’ve seen, along some highway, a pickup in the ditch and trailer on its side, cargo and equipment scattered about.
More times than not, the reason for the accident is loss of vehicle control because the trailer was too heavy for the pickup and/or the pickup up wasn’t properly equipped to handle the trailered load. Towing in such a manner is both a safety and liability issue.
Today’s pickups can tow more than ever before. So private contractors and fleet operators take advantage of that capability by towing bigger loads.
What hasn’t changed for the majority of 2014-newer pickups is the requirement that a weight-distrbuting (W-D) hitch be used when towing trailered loads in excess of 5,000 pounds for ½-tons and around 8,500 pounds for ¾- and 1-tons.
A LIABILITY & SAFETY ISSUE
Unfortunately the majority of pickup owners/drivers never pay attention to trailered weight, tongue weight, or for that matter, manufacturer’s requirements for the pickup they are driving to be properly-equipped.
Such drivers believe as long as the truck’s front wheels touch the ground and it can accelerate and come to a stop, all is fine.
They also believe it takes more time and hassel to connect the W-D hitch, and “wasted” time is money.
If you want to talk money from a business perspective, having a driver in an accident that was caused because the truck wasn’t being used in accordance to the manufacturer’s specifications is a huge liability issue, not to mention general saftey of the driver and occupants.
Taking that extra 60 seconds to hook up the W-D’s spring bars takes that liablity exposure out of the picture and, at the same time, significanlty improves the truck’s handling and stability when there’s a havy trailer on the hitch.
TOW RATINGS HAVE FINE PRINT
Trailer ratings are one of the primary parameters in pickup manufacturers’ battle for supremacy – or owners’ bragging rights – but they’re frequently just that, a rating.
What your truck can realistically tow – be it stock or modified in some fashion – is usually less than the rating; among other things, those ratings don’t usually include the weight of the hitch hardware, cargo or passengers.
Those receiver-pull (a.k.a. “conventional” towing as opposed to gooseneck or fifth-wheel) ratings always have an asterisk or footnote emphasizing that above a certain trailer and/or tongue weight, a weight-distributing hitch must be used.
They may also note that using an adaptor to match a 2-inch ball-mount to a 2.5-inch receiver, like those found on today’s heavy-duty pickups, lowers the tow rating by thousands of pounds.
The hitch is one area where erring on the safe side is a good bet, especially since some language is ambiguous.
NOT ALL PICKUPS CREATED EQUAL
Weight-distributing hitch use has been a requirement on all full-size pickups for trailer weights more than 5,000 pounds for decades.
Note, we didn’t say RV trailers, or boat trailers, or ATV trailers, or equipment trailers. It’s “trailered weight,” no matter what type trailer is in tow.
If the trailered weight exceeds x-amount, as specified by the pickup manufacturer’s towing specifications for that particular truck, that’s the rule.
For instance, the 2015 Ram 1500/2500/3500 owner’s manual says a weight-distribution hitch is required for trailers weighing more than 5,000 pounds.
It doesn’t matter what the salesman says, or anyone else. In a court of law the vehicle manufacturer’s stated limitations and requirements for the vehicle being properly equipped to tow a certain load is a hard fact.
GM’s 2015 Trailering Guide lists typical hitches for Class IV trailers (5,001-10,000 pounds gross trailer weight) as weight-distributing or fifth-wheel, and notes weight-distribution and sway control are required for towing more than 7,000 pounds with a 1500-series Silverado or Sierra (at “50% hitch distribution”).
Ball-hitch listings for maximum trailer weight on 2500/3500 are footnoted as “Trailer rating limited to 13,000 pounds with weight-distributing hitch on select models,” but does not specify those models, nor does it note a minimum weight at which a weight-dsitributing hitch is required.
In many cases you are directed to “refer to the trailer manufacturers recommendation.”
Ford’s 2015 RV and Trailer Towing Guide carries the blanket warning, “Maximum loaded trailer weight requires weight-distribution hitch” and that it is required for certain Class III and Class IV applications.
The fine print also details the owner is responsible for obtaining the proper weight-distributing equipment, specifically including sway control.
Ford’s towing data list weight-distribution required on F-150 for trailers more than 5,000 pounds (or 500-pound tongue weight) and 6,000/600 pounds behind single-rear wheel SuperDuty pickups.
The Ford fleet towing guide also notes dually F-350/F-450s towing more than 8,500 pounds (850 tongue weight) and required to use a W-D hitch.
Weight-distribution guidelines also apply to pre-2015 models of all brands of pickups, often with lower thresholds since earlier trucks towed and weighed less.
All the listings we found say also to check with your dealer regarding required towing equipment.
Unfortunately, few sales people at most dealerships know or understand the importance of such towing requirements, or they aren’t vesred in proper setup of fleet pickups being used to tow on a regualr basis.
That’s why it’s important for fleet vehicle managers and company owners to read the owner’s manual and the stickers on the hitch, door jamb and glovebox, as well as researching the manufacturer’s online Towing Guides to see what limitations each pickup that’s being used to tow a trailer.
Taking the time to properly setup tow vehicles and educating the drivers/users of said vehicles on the importance of having whatever they are towing with be properly-equipped is crucial to the safety of everyone involved. It also reduces the company’s liability exposure.
A REAL LIABILITY ISSUE
What the manufacturer requires in the vehicle’s owner’s manual, data plates and stickers on the truck, and trailer guides opens any company to legal liability in the event of any incident where the vehicle involved found to be towing outside those requirements.
The truck-maker may have deep pockets, but if the driver wasn’t towing as required, it will be the company that oenwed the vehicle that gets its pockets emptied.
And, if an insurance company considers the insured vehicle was operating unsafely by disregarding requirements set forth in the owner’s manual and all relevant literature, don’t expect any help from them.
As Jonathan Michaels, founding member of Michaels Law Group, which specializes in representing clients in the automotive industry, notes, “Towing regulations are governed by state vehicle codes, and they provide for specific methods of use and installation for towing mechanisms.
“Failure to comply with these varied requirements,” Michaels says, “can lead to steep civil liability for both the vehicle operator and vehicle owner under the legal theory of negligence per se.”
Consider that a polite warning to anyone who uses their pickups (and SUVs) to tow trailers on company time.
So whether or not you think a pickup n your fleet needs it, legal and insurance requirements dictate they be setup to use a weight-distribution hitch when the pickup manufacturer’s stated trailered weights apply.
BENEFITS OF A W-D HITCH
If you’ve changed the ride height, springs, shocks, wheels, tires or some combination of elements, the added stability that a W-D hitch provides may be doubly welcome.
Also, adding a lot of weight to the rear axle tends to lighten the front axle, making steering touchy, less likely to return to center, and especially on IFS two-wheel drives, perhaps alters the geometry enough that tires will wear prematurely.
The concept behind a W-D hitch employs basic physics to balance the load on the truck more equally between front and rear axles.
Because of the lever-arm effect, a 1,000-pound tongue weight applied to a traditional tow ball located 60 inches behind the rear axle on a 160-inch wheelbase truck adds nearly 1,400 pounds to the rear axle.
A W-D hitch redistributes some of that load to the pickup’s front wheels and the trailer’s, giving better over load balance.
A W-D hitch uses spring bars to do the redistribution of that weight, so the hitch should be sized for the maximum weight of the heaviest trailer being towed. (The spring bars can always be removed or set to a lower tension for towing a lighter weight trailer.)
The end goal is to have the truck remain near its normal level stance with minimum drop on the rear axle and rise on the front, while the trailer remains level on its axles. This setup provides the best vehicle and trailer handling.
Using a W-D hitch when towing heavier trailers is relatively cheap insurance. We found street prices for a complete 10,000-pound W-D setup are less than $400 while 17,000-pound systems for 2.5-inch receivers can be had for less than $600.
Installation takes less than an hour (unless your trailer’s A-frame is sealed or completely covered) with no “special” tools required except a couple of large sockets.
A W-D hitch setup will include detailed instructions on the setup, and most hitch manufacturers have such instructions and video on their websites. Initial trailer setup should take a half-hour or less, and once set add, no more than a minute or two to the hitching process.
So the argument using a W-D hitch costs valuable time doesn’t hold water when compared to what the liability costs could be in the case of a towing-related accident.
We fitted one to a Landoll LT1220 tilt-deck tandem-axle for towing a Case skid-steer with a 2015 Ford F250. It took us less than two minutes to get the W-D hitch in place and the spring bars adjusted for the 10,500-pound trailered load as required by Ford.
The truck handled and rode better with the W-D installed than it did without. That’s comforting on many levels.