Tow vehicle on the track

Towing a big trailer intimidates a lot of people when they try it for the first time.  It should, because you can very quickly get into trouble when towing. It requires drivers to learn a new set of skills, and apply good driving practices at all times.  I think it is particularly intimidating when you’ve just signed a loan agreement obligating you to 10 years of monthly payments, and you realize that a considerable portion of your net worth is now rolling along with you, presenting a large and shiny target for every nutcase driver on the road.  A new truck/Airstream combination can easily come in at $80-100k.  Atop that, there’s the knowledge that you, your family, and your dog are all going to be involved in any accident you get into.

rolloversign.jpgSo suddenly those “defensive driving” tips you have taken not-so-seriously rise to an unprecedented level of importance.  Suddenly you’re the one cursing that guy who cut in between you and the car in front of you, using up all the distance and reducing your time to react.  Now you’re paying attention to the rollover warning sign on the Interstate exit ramp, and the 25-MPH speed limit on the big cloverleaf intersection.  You realize, “Hey, they mean me” when you are towing two or three tons of expensive housing behind you.

In late 2000, Eleanor had a rollover accident with baby Emma in the car, and ever since I’ve been interested in getting both of us some advanced driver training.  We know how to drive, but do we really have the instincts to react properly when it all suddenly goes very wrong at 60 MPH?  I’d like us both to have some more confidence about our abilities in adverse situations, and the trained reactions to avoid a crash.

Now, after years of Airstream ownership and years of full-time travel, I am pretty sure I know how to handle my Airstream. The number one rule is simple: SLOW DOWN.  There are many other practical rules as well, involving getting in and out of tight spots, evaluating situations before getting trapped in them, backing up, passing, rough roads, etc.  I’ve got all those pretty well figured out by now, mostly as a result of painful experience.

The thing that concerns me about towing is not the trailer, but the tow vehicle.  Most tow vehicles have a high center of gravity and are more prone to rollover than the average car.  Adding an Airstream actually tends to help with this, by putting weight down low and stabilizing the vehicle — if properly hitched.  But adding people, fuel, and cargo usually raises the center of gravity in an SUV, and most drivers aren’t aware of this until they notice adverse handling.

Moreover, pickup trucks and SUVs are generally lousy at high-speed maneuvers.  They aren’t designed for that.  You’ve got a narrow maneuverability envelope to work in at highway speeds.  Exceed the envelope, and the tow vehicle will go out of control, often without much advance warning. That’s further reason to understand the limits of your vehicle, and to train yourself how to react properly.

Last weekend a local car club was holding a “Defensive Driving” course up in Phoenix, and we signed up.  The instructors recommended showing up in the vehicle you drive the most, so we brought our Airstream’s tow vehicle, the Mercedes GL320.  At 6,000+  pounds, it was by far the largest and heaviest car on the track. Most people were in small sedans or sportscars.

dsc_4783.jpgThe course included about half an hour of “chalk talk” followed by individual instruction on a course set out in the parking lot of a former Wal-Mart.  We took turns driving through the course with an instructor in the right seat.  The tasks included an emergency lane-change maneuver, a slalom, an emergency brake followed by immediate lane change, and a panic stop strong enough to engage the anti-lock brakes.

dsc_4579.jpgI thought all of this would be routine, but I was surprised.  Each task had an unexpected element to it.  In the emergency lane change, I discovered how easy it is to go the wrong way when you’ve got to make a snap decision.  In the slalom, I was frankly amazed at the handling of the GL320 — it went through much faster than I had expected.

The panic stop was a particular challenge for me.  I thought I was pressing pretty hard on the brakes, but I had to try three times before getting the ABS to kick in.  Once I did, the GL320 came a stop really fast.  Turns out that I’ve been holding back on the brakes, probably as a result of learning to drive up in Vermont without ABS, in the snow, where you’ve got to keep a light foot on the brake to avoid skidding.  Old habits die hard, but that one needs to go.  The ABS computer can do a better job of modulating the brake pressure than I can.

After lunch, the course was re-set as an autocross.   Racing your “daily driver” through the course is the icing on the cake at these events.  We walked the course twice, then Eleanor and I each took a couple of tries at it.  On our second try, we were timed.  You can see me driving the autocross course at our Airstream Life photo/video community.  My time was 49 seconds, Eleanor’s was 51.  Not bad actually, considering the vehicle we were in.  (Our past tow vehicle, a much larger and taller Nissan Armada, probably would have skidded excessively or tipped over if I’d driven it that hard.)  The best time of the day was set by a past national autocross winner, at 38 seconds (in a Mercedes E300), and I think the highest time was 55 seconds.

Sure enough, leaving the event I had a sense of much greater confidence in the vehicle, knowing much more accurately how far I could push it in a turning or braking maneuver.  We’re far from professional drivers at this point, but the day was well spent and I hope we’ll advance our skills later in another similar event.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine