When is it OK to tow another car, and what do I need to know before towing?

When is it OK to tow another car, and what do I need to know before towing?

Don't get in a knot with a towrope — follow these rules

When is it OK to tow another car, and what do I need to know before towing?

TOWING another car behind yours might sound like a simple operation, but it isn’t – if you’ve never towed another vehicle, you’ll discover that it’s actually quite tricky. Here, The Sunday Times Driving addresses some of the more challenging aspects of towing.


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When is it OK to tow another car?

The most appropriate time to tow another car is when it has broken down and is either causing an obstruction or is in a dangerous location and needs to be towed to a safer spot. Towing another car has inherent dangers and you really should keep that journey to an absolute minimum distance.

I’ve bought an ancient classic car that’s on a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification). Can I tow it to my garage where I plan to restore it?

In a word, no. The law is pretty clear here – if the car being rope-towed has its four wheels on the ground, it’s treated the same as any other roadworthy vehicle, meaning that it must be insured and taxed with a valid MOT. So in this instance, you’re going to need a trailer. Or a bigger budget for a road-legal classic.


What kind of towrope should I have?

It might be tempting to root around in the back of your garage for any old bit of rope, but don’t do it. The consequences of having a rope snap while towing another car range from the comical to the tragic, so do the right thing and buy yourself a purpose-built rope.

It’ll be a handy thing to have in your boot anyway, and automotive aftermarket outlets carry a wide range of towropes – a heavy-duty example rated for 3.5 tonnes and meeting British Standards should cover just about any towing eventuality.

Buy a Heavy Duty Elastic Tow Rope at Halfords.com


How long should my towrope be?

Legally, there’s no minimum length, but common sense dictates that you leave enough distance between the two cars so that the one behind has plenty of time to react to brakes and turns.

There is, though, a maximum allowable length of 4.5 metres, and if you’re using a rope that’s longer than 1.5 metres the law says you need to attach a flapping bit of coloured cloth to the middle so other drivers spot the rope. Because while you might think that a couple of metres doesn’t represent an exploitable gap in traffic, experience teaches that many motorists do. Especially in London. And particularly on the North Circular.


Do I need a sign of any kind?

Yes you do. When you buy a purpose-built tow rope they usually come with an ‘On Tow’ sign, which you hang on the back of the car being towed (obviously). The police won’t be very happy if you don’t have one of those.


Does the ignition of the car being towed need to be on?

Absolutely. If the ignition isn’t on, the steering lock will still be engaged, which could have the tow car going in one direction and the car being towed going in another at the first corner. And that’s not going to end well.


Do the lights on the car being towed have to work?

Driving asked the police about this and the answer was an unequivocal yes, particularly if it’s dark. And even if it’s broad daylight, forget using hand signals instead of indicators – does anyone even remember what the hand signal for a left turn is? According to the Highway Code, it’s a counter-clockwise rotation of your right arm, which could lead to all sorts of misunderstandings…


Can I tow a car with an automatic transmission?

If the driven wheels of an automatic transmission car are in contact with the road when the car is under tow – and the engine isn’t running – there is a possibility of damage to the transmission. It is essential that you consult your owners’ manual as it will contain a section that addresses towing, with some manufacturers imposing a distance and speed limit for automatic transmission cars. And just as with manual transmission cars, make sure that the gearbox is in neutral.


How should the car doing the towing be driven?

Carefully. Very carefully. Keep your speed as low as safely possible, and pull away as gently as you can, modulating the clutch to avoid “snatching” the rope. That’ll prevent a really unpleasant jerking action in the car being towed, and if your towrope is going to snap, it’ll be on that occasion.

Also, brake lightly in advance to trigger brake lights so the towed car has plenty of notice that braking is imminent. And likewise, indicate well in advance so your partner behind has lots of notice.

Keep an eye on your temperature gauge as your engine will be under a greater load than usual, so overheating is a potential issue. And because there’s lot more going on than during your usual journeys, it’s wise to have someone else in the tow car to keep a closer eye on what’s happening behind.

Avoid any dramatic manoeuvres, sudden braking or acceleration – remember, if the towed car doesn’t have a running engine, it also won’t have power assisted steering or brakes. Which could result in two dead cars instead of one.


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How should the car being towed be driven?

Even more carefully than the tow car – this is arguably the tougher end of the operation. First off, the towed car may not have engine power, which means power assisted brakes and steering will need much greater physical effort to operate. Remember to ensure the car is in neutral, too.

Keep an eagle eye out for brake lights and indicators on the tow car, and be ready to coordinate your steering and braking actions. It’s also a good idea to keep tension in the towrope as much as possible by braking very lightly while being towed. This will prevent “snatching” and will keep the rope from dragging along the road, which will shorten its life considerably.

Finally, if your Clarkson-obsessed 11-year-old kid enthusiastically volunteers to steer the towed car, that’s a no – the law says that driver needs to be fully qualified and licenced, too.


What if the towed driver has a problem?

It’s a good idea to agree a few simple hand signals so that the towed driver can quickly communicate messages like “slow down”, “stop” or “you’re driving like a complete ****”. It must be said, that last one’s a fairly obvious hand signal.