Uit: Caravan Club Magazine, june 2003
Make the right connections
Are you sure you connect up your caravan's breakaway cable correctly? It's something worth checking, because a number of owners are undoubtedly making mistakes. Get it wrong and there can be a high price to pay-as someone found last autumn. Before looking at common mistakes, it's helpful to clarify a breakaway cable's function. Just supposing that a caravan became unexpectedly detached from its towing vehicle, the breakaway cable then enjoys its moment of glory. As caravan and car part company, a correctly-coupled cable immediately applies the caravan's handbrake before snapping in a selfless act of sacrificial benevolence.
No-one claims that this would eliminate mayhem on a busy road, but at least an unhitched caravan with its brakes fully applied is a lesser evil than one that gallops off unchecked.
So that's a breakaway cable's job. On the other hand, its intended operation might not be achieved if you don't connect it up correctly. And plenty of people don't, as roadside research has revealed.
However, there's another problem which takes me back to that incident which prompted investigations. It involved an owner of a brand new caravan and his experiences on a maiden trip. Apparently, his powerful car pulled so well that he didn't realise his caravan's brakes had been prematurely engaged by an incorrectly connected breakaway cable. Suffice it to say, grease melted and the brake assemblies overheated. Thankfully no-one was hurt, but the axle was badly damaged.
When this news reached Al-Ko Kober, the company responded at once. First there was roadside research with police help, then collation and analysis of the findings. The upshot was the convening of a working party made up of 10 industry experts, who represented the National Caravan Council, the National Trailer and Towing Association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, The Caravan Club and The Camping and Caravanning Club.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE CONCLUSIONS:
- When correctly coupled-up, a caravan is extremely unlikely to come away from its towing vehicle. That's a reassuring fact.
- Notwithstanding the reliability of couplings, breakaway cables are often attached incorrectly-they can even engage a caravan's handbrake when it's being towed.
- Why are so many breakaway cables incorrectly connected? The working party found that recommendations given by dealers and in leaflets, booklets and magazines is ambiguous, inconsistent and often completely wrong!
- Data showed that the premature application of a towed caravan's brakes is more likely to occur on modes whose handbrake is fitted with a gas-strut.
Note: Owners will know that after they've exerted an initial pull on their caravan's hand lever, a gas spring then applies the brakes fully. It's a good system but an over-tight breakaway cable can similarly prompt this action when a caravan is being towed.
- The data also revealed that there's a greater incidence of premature braking when off-road vehicles are used for towing. That's because their bracket attachment points for the breakaway cable are often mounted a long way from the hall itself- so a connected cable is much too taut.
Note: Some specialists recommend that the attachment point should be no more than 100mm (4in) from the centre of a towball. Unfortunately, on some designs of towing bracket this provision is difficult - if not impossible - to a achieve.
- Contrary to some people's assertions, the working party could find no evidence that it is illegal to attach a breakaway cable to the neck of a towball.
Note: Without doubt, it's better to connect a breakaway cable by looping it once through a purpose-made eyelet on a towing bracket and clipping it back on itself. But in the absence of such a fitting, wrapping it once around the neck of a towball and clipping it back on itself is an acceptable alternative. The Caravan Club has stated for some time that "this isn't the preferred method", although the practice isn't believed to be illegal.
To clarify procedures, a free leaflet is now being sent out nationwide to dealers for distribution to both staff and customers. It summarises the working party's advice which every caravanner should follow. That's not to say that further technical improvements aren't being investigated. For instance, getting towbar manufacturers to fit a large enough eyelet to allow a breakaway cable clip to pass through its centre would be welcome; locating it within 100mm from the towball centre is also highly desirable.
Armed with these new guidelines, I wanted to try things out. So I spent a day at a caravan dealer's matching different vehicles to new and secondhand caravans. It wasn't always straightforward and here are some features to check:
- Ensure the cable is undamaged and that its clip, and attachment to the handbrake lever, are sound.
- When connected, the alignment of a breakaway cable should be AS STRAIGHT AS POSSIBLE and it should pass through a cable guide underneath the coupling.
- The cable must have enough slack to allow an outfit to articulate when turning tight corners WITHOUT applying the caravan's handbrake.
- A cable mustn't be too slack and should never drag on the road surface.
- Ideally, its attachment clip at the front should pass through a purpose-made eyelet on the towbar and then be clipped back on to the cable itself.
- In the absence of an eyelet, and provided the towball isn't a detachable model, the cable can be looped around the neck of the hall and clipped back on itself.
- Detachable towballs, whose bracket assemblies offer no breakaway coupling eye, represent a potential problem. If in any doubt you should always consult the towbar manufacturer or supplier.
- Always use the manufacturer's own cable, bearing in mind that the length is specific to the chassis itself.