In the UK, if you intend on towing a caravan, trailer or fifth wheel, you need an appropriate driving licence. For many people who like caravans, it’s not a concern. However, if you passed your driving test after 1st January 1997, you can barely tow anything. To tow a big caravan, you need to take an extra test and get the coveted B+E entitlement on your licence!
What does the towing test cover?
When I first started looking into this, I read from various people that the towing test is about towing, and not about your driving. That’s not true! The test is a full drivers test while towing, it is supposed to take about 60 minutes and consists of:
- Sight test and Car and trailer ‘show me, tell me’ vehicle safety questions
- Manoeuvring, including reversing through an S curve into a virtual garage
- Safe hitching and unhitching demonstration
- Accompanied drive on varied types of roads and situations including hill stops and starts and independent driving
There are lots of great driving instructors out there, and I chose to use A-Class HGV for my training. They’re local to me (as is the test centre); they have had a presence at various events I’ve attended over the years where they’ve been happy to discuss training; I feel that I can trust that they know what they’re doing. A good tip, if you want to get training, is to ask to meet an instructor and see the vehicles; many instruction agencies farm out work and won’t have anything for you to see – so this will help you find an actual instructor.
Right now, I drive a Nissan Leaf, which was never homologated for towing and so I’ll be borrowing both the tow car and trailer from A-Class for my training. I’ve only pulled a small trailer a few times in my life, so I’m going for a training course which consists of 3 half-day sessions, with the 3rd day including the test itself. If I pass, my licence will be sent away and I’ll get that extra category added – and I’ll finally be able to tow our new home!
I re-read sections of the Highway Code and tried to practice good driving. I also looked at some videos about the test and trailer reversing, but I didn’t want to look at too much so that I didn’t have any misconceptions when the actual training started.
A couple of days before my training, I received a couple of messages from A-Class containing some acronyms and processes to follow when towing, coupling and uncoupling the trailer. These were:
POSH – to be used when pulling away
Put into gear
MSPSGL – to be used when approaching a junction
Uncoupling the trailer
1/ Handbrake on
2/ Lower leg to ground
3/ Lift trailer hitch and wind trailer off the truck
4/ Remove electric lead
5/ Remove brake away cable
6/ Park car alongside the trailer
Coupling the trailer
1/ Reverse car to the trailer within reach of breakaway cable.
2/ Connect breakaway cable
3/ Pull trailer to over ball then replace handbrake
4/ Lift trailer hitch and lower trailer
5/ Wind trailer BACK up a bit to check connected to the truck
6/ Wind up fully and store jockey wheel away
7/ Plug-in electric lead and make sure breakaway cable not rubbing ground
8/ Release handbrake
9/ ASK EXAMINER to check lights
I then spent the rest of the weekend trying to remember these sequences. They would prove useful during the training.
On day one of my trailer towing test, I met Peter Kohn, my instructor (along with a trainee instructor whose name I unfortunately forget), at 11:30 on what would turn out to be the hottest day of the year so far! The temperature officially reached 33.3°C and it felt like more in the almost midday sun.
Pete introduced me to a blue, 2006, Nissan Navara with a 6-speed manual gearbox. The Navara was already hooked up to a trailer weighing just over 1,000kg; perfect for the test while not being too strenuous on an inexperienced driver. Thankfully for all of us, the Navaras air-con was soon blasting frigid air and before I knew what was happening, Pete drove us out into traffic and started talking about the techniques for towing.
We drove around the Gillingham business park, a small industrial park near the testing offices, a couple of times. As we negotiated each junction and curve, Pete described the process that he was following. The key he said, was to always check the mirrors before you move a limb. If you’re about to curve left, check the mirror for cyclists; if you’re about to curve right, check for overtaking cars and motorcycles. This mirror check extended further, check the mirrors before you shift gears, before you brake etc.
The rest of the trick was just to use the POSH and MSPSGL procedures whenever appropriate, get your speed down in advance of junctions and roundabouts to improve your sight time, and to be smooth.
Apprehensively, I got into the driver’s seat and got myself comfortable. Pulling away was reasonably easy, gear, mirrors, blindspot, handbrake and away! Mostly this was easy because we were on a downhill facing section of road!
We then continue to trundle around the business park, briefly venturing out, in a constant loop; getting used to the weight of the vehicle, the procedures to follow and the time it takes to do things when your vehicle is towing a ton of weight behind it within a small and relatively controlled environment.
Satisfied with my performance, Pete directed me out of the business park, and we headed off into the wider parts of the Medway area; heading down through the Medway tunnel and making our way back through Strood and Rochester, and finally heading off along the A2 towards Sittingbourne so that I could face my greatest fear…
Reversing a trailer is (with no proof at all!) the main thing that drivers fail at when towing. Confusion about which way to spin the wheel and what angle you need to be at in order to keep the trailer under control have, I am sure, caused almost as many divorces as they have insurance claims.
As we arrived in Sittingbourne, Pete directed me to a concrete off-road area where we could safely practice the S curve reverse, as well as the uncoupling and recoupling exercises. I was directed to wait in the Navara while Pete and the other instructor paced out the reversing course. Once measured out, it was time for Pete to once again jump in the driver’s seat and demonstrate the proper technique.
Pete amply demonstrated the proper reversing technique, watching for particular guides on the trailer to help me maintain a constant curve and how to quickly ‘catch’ the trailer with the steering to stop it turning any further. He easily popped the trailer into the garage area and explained where to stop. We then got out of the Navara, had a good look at his positioning, and then it was my go.
I drove the Navara up to the start line, trying to keep tight to the cone in the middle of the course, as this would reduce the amount of steering I would have to do. I followed Pete’s guidance as we gently eased backwards through the course, and with a little help, managed to put the trailer in the garage successfully! Once I had completed the test a couple of times, Pete got me to complete the task alone while he watched from outside. Apart from not being able to get particular straight a few times, I managed to complete the reversing exercise myself every time and I finally felt a little bit of confidence coming through.
Finally, we went through the uncoupling, trailer inspection and recoupling process – which is exactly as it was described in the message I had received. Follow the steps in order. The most difficult part of coupling the trailer is reversing up in the first place; you must get close enough to attach the breakaway cable before you can release the trailer handbrake – but touching the trailer is an instant fail! To mitigate this, Pete said that I should stop a reasonable distance away, get out and look, then keep halving the distance back until the cable reached.
Something I hadn’t expected, was that you should describe what you are doing and why to the examiner throughout all of the processes. This feels a little silly while you’re doing it, but shows the examiner you know why you’re doing the checks you are, rather than cursorily looking at tyres and lights because someone said you had to do so.
After that, it was back into the Navara and back towards Gillingham for more road driving experience, until the end of the training day.
The second day was almost as hot as the first. This time I was a little more prepared for time out of the car with a cold bottle of water (thanks Karen) and my hat; clearly, as I was prepared, we never set foot out of the car for the entire time!
Training for day two was entirely road driving experience, with Pete allowing me to drive with less instruction, in a similar manner to the test. We chatted a lot more as I was less nervous. For the most part, the drive went well. Areas of concern for me were primarily over when to indicate, as many roundabouts and junctions in our area are sign controlled and don’t necessarily follow what I had considered the ‘logical’ route; this means that you may be going all the way around a roundabout, but if you’re in a dedicated lane then you will need minimal, if any, indication of your intentions at all.
Two fails were that I pulled out onto a roundabout ahead of a BMW that accelerated onto the roundabout much faster than I was expecting, causing them to slow down. The other was approaching a traffic light, I hadn’t eased off and was about to barrel through on amber when a shout from the passenger seat set off my emergency stop mode, causing a brief skid from the trailer following behind. A tip followed to ease off when approaching traffic lights which have been green for a while to try and reduce sudden braking events.
Day Three and the Test
As day three dawned, I was feeling pretty confident! I had just completed two days of training, 8 hours in the seat, without experiencing many issues. I had completed all of the stages of the test in isolation, and I knew that I would be able to do it.
Of course, there’s a saying about that sort of confidence, or pride, if you will.
I met Pete in the usual spot and we headed off to collect the Navara, once again in the baking heat. We got in, started it up, and started heading out towards Sittingbourne to check over my manoeuvring skills again. All was well.
We got to the yard to practice, and Pete laid out the cones for the S curve test. I drove around and reversed into the bay. I got in, but Pete pointed out that I had let the trailer drift wide and was very close to falling outside the test space. Again, I went round, and twice more I managed to get into the bay properly.
I got out of the car and went to uncouple the trailer – which went fine. I inspected the trailer – which went fine. Then, I had to recouple the trailer and somehow, I got completely confused and nearly dropped the entire trailer on its nose! Without Pete’s intervention, I’d have damaged the trailer, probably my foot and maybe the Navara! I was informed that this was a definite fail.
From then on I was a mess; even after I had finished coupling, I forgot to ask about checking the trailer lights. I stepped away, had a drink and tried to calm down. Then I reattempted the uncoupling and recoupling processes from the top and thankfully got them right.
After that, it was too hot, and we climbed back into the Navara and carried on with independent driving until it was time for the test itself. I was a bundle of nerves, fully aware that I had messed up because I was rushing, and not thinking about the process. Finally, Pete uttered the phrase, “Turn left into the test centre”, and I knew that the reckoning time was upon me.
Pete showed me around the test centre, explaining the differences to our testing area. I then spent the 10-minute wait for the examiner running through the uncoupling and coupling exercises over and over again; even acting out the actions with my hands to make sure that I had it all down right.
After what seemed like an age, I met with the examiner; I handed over my licence and signed the form, then we walked out to the waiting Navara.
We started with the sight test and the show me/tell me questions. They went past quickly, and painlessly. Then we drove round to the examination area.
The examiner explained what was expected, and laid out the cones. It all looked a lot shorter and narrower than it had in the big yard – especially the garage at the end. Despite my nerves, I managed to complete the S curve and end up with the trailer tight to the back of the garage, but safe. Then, the uncoupling, which went smoothly, as did the inspection. Nervously, I started the coupling process; but my practising mantra from earlier had paid off! I was able to follow the process smoothly from start to finish and remembered to ask the examiner to check my lights. One issue I did have, was that I didn’t check each indicator individually; I had only checked the hazards, but the examiner reminded me and the first half of the test was complete.
After that, we headed out into the world again for some independent driving. The driving went pretty smoothly, though I was told to stop at the side of the road a lot more often than I had anticipated. We also went through a section of town where refuse collection was still going on; we had lots of opportunities to practice pulling out from behind large vehicles!
There were a few moments where I knew that I hadn’t done as well as I could; there were others where I saw the examiner making marks on the paper when I thought I had done fine. All of this added to my nerves as I patiently drove around, waiting for the end of the test.
Did I pass?
What could I have done better?
According to the examiner, I made 3 minor mistakes on the towing test. Speed: I approached a junction a little too fast; Braking: I stopped at a traffic light that the examiner would have continued through; Positioning: I had poor lane discipline on a roundabout.
I agree with him on the junction speed, though downhill into a roundabout can be difficult. One thing I certainly learned on the first day, was that getting down to a low-speed 20m or so before a junction gives you a lot more time to look and see what’s happening. A large vehicle doesn’t slow down easily either and you’ll have to use a lot of brakes if you need to stop in a hurry.
I’m not so sure on the others; the traffic lights were at a busy junction and going through would have opened me up to people jumping the gun onto the roundabout. I’d also rather get a minor for stopping hard than a major for running a light!
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better result, so there’s not much I could have done better, other than to reduce that junction approach speed. An invaluable lesson once we’re towing our fifth wheel.
My thanks to Pete at A-Class for helping me through the test. He was a great teacher who knew when to give advice, rather than trying to dictate every moment.