Sometimes you see a train wreck happening, and all you can do is watch as it unfolds in slow motion. I just recently observed said train wreck, with the sad knowledge that it could have been prevented, had the driver only been schooled in what to do. What, you ask was this train wreck? An out of control travel trailer, swaying over two lanes of traffic, and an obviously frightened driver that had no idea how to deal with it.
Many things can cause sway, some preventable, some not. But knowing what to do in those precious few seconds when you realize you are in deep shit can make all the difference in the world. I did stop for the accident, and thankfully the driver was ok. The trailer was a total loss, and the tow vehicle wasn’t going anywhere either. It appeared that the trailer began swaying due to road conditions, at least to my eye. It went into terminal oscillation. Once this happens, you have about three seconds to react before the situation is completely out of control and beyond salvation. What I saw happen sent chills up my spine, because the driver jammed on the truck brakes (vehicle brake lights came on before trailer lights), and that sent him to the seventh level of oscillation hell.
For those who tow, here is a short primer on dealing with terminal sway.
1. Do NOT jam on the tow vehicle brakes. Maintain your speed and hold the steering wheel solid. Do NOT try to steer out of the sway, you will only feed the oscillations, since the tow ball will move in the opposite direction of the steering wheel. Hold steady in the direction you wish to travel.
2. Grab the slider on your brake controller and shut the trailer down hard. Apply FULL braking power through your controller.
3. Once you feel the oscillations begin to dampen, slowly release your throttle while still maintaining full braking on the trailer.
4. Once your speed has dropped to 30 mph or slower, release your trailer brakes, pull over, and determine WHY your sway started. Do not just go on your merry way, because it will happen again. Take enough chances and you are going to lose.
The most common cause of sway is the lack of sufficient tongue weight on the trailer ball. A good rule of thumb is 12-15% of your total trailer weight should be resting on the tongue of the trailer. If you use a weight distribution hitch (WDH), be sure that you don’t transfer too much weight to the front axle of the tow vehicle by tightening the hitch too much. If you do, you will remove the weight from the tow ball, and set yourself up for terminal sway.
If you cannot safely tow your trailer without cranking up on the WDH because your tow vehicle sags too much, then you need to seriously consider a larger tow vehicle or a smaller trailer.
No matter what, if you tow a travel trailer or flatbed that uses a ball mount hitch, you NEED to practice what you will do in the event of sway. You have approximately three seconds at 65mph before the situation is no longer salvageable. Practice over and over, reaching for that slider, staying on the gas, and using the trailer to stop yourself. It could save your life, or the lives of those around you.
And yes, I have been in a terminal sway situation, and I had complete control of the situation. The road conditions conspired with a passing semi and set my trailer into a sway cycle. I maintained my speed, held steady on the wheel and shut the trailer down as hard as I could. The trailer brakes took command and jerked the trailer back where it was supposed to be. I then got the hell off of the highway and loaded even more tongue weight forward in the trailer. I had no more troubles.
Sway is terrifying. It seemed like an eternity as my trailer swayed out of control over two lanes of traffic. The fact that I had practiced shutting the trailer down meant I did not have to think, I just did. Thankfully it all worked out ok, but for too many people it doesn’t. They buy a trailer and take off down the road, with nary a thought of what to do if Bad Things happen. And if you tow long enough, those Bad Things WILL happen. Knowing how to control sway should be as automatic as knowing how to drive through a blowout, but too many folks don’t know how. And tragedy results.