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Safety Considerations

Being safe on the road requires keeping an eye on everything from RV weight and size, to hazards and other road users

17th December, 2020 by rvSafe Team
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There can be a lot to consider to stay safe on a journey across our great wide land. Driving or towing an RV can be very different from normal driving. Here are some key considerations.



Big Vehicles and Motorhome Weights

Weight is an extremely important consideration when selecting a motorhome. It may not be something you’ve had to consider before, but every vehicle is subject to weight limits, and the weight of the vehicle may dictate what kind of licence you need to drive it. Manufacturers perform extensive testing to establish these limits. Not only that, but all of the components used in manufacture, as well as tyres, axles and suspension, are made to handle up to a certain weight. Overloading can result in excess wear and tear or premature failure.

Staying within manufacturer-specified weight limits is a legal requirement. It’s possible to find yourself in some hot water if you’re weighed by state road authorities, or if you have an accident in an overweight vehicle you may be held accountable, which could result in serious legal issues, and your insurance will be void.


The Figures

There are several figures that define how heavy your motorhome can be, which will account for the vehicle, its contents and additional fitting and fixtures.


Payload refers to the total weight you can load into your motorhome, including clothes, bedding, food, water and any other creature comforts. If you choose to fit aftermarket driving lights, awnings, or any other modifications, they will take away from your payload as well. You can calculate your payload by subtracting the vehicle’s tare weight from GVM (see below).

Tare weight

Tare weight refers to the weight of the vehicle as it leaves the manufacturer, including all engine fluids and a 10 per cent fuel reserve (water tanks are empty). Note that dealer inclusions and optional fittings may not be included in the Tare weight at the time of purchase.

All buyers are advised to verify the figure on the compliance plate by requesting the RV be weighed in their presence on a certified weighbridge prior to finalising the purchase.

Things such as awnings, spare tyres, storage boxes and extra tanks can dramatically reduce payload — that is, the amount of weight you can load into the vehicle. Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of stories where new owners have discovered their tare was higher than they’d been led to believe, causing all manner of complications.


Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM)

Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) is the most your vehicle can weigh, including fuel, water and anything else inside — it even includes the driver and passengers. To make sure you’re within the allowed GVM, it’s standard practice to load up everything you wish to take on the road, fill the tanks and drive to your nearest weighbridge.

Towing Weight

There are further weight restrictions for caravans, camper trailers, and for vehicles towed behind a motorhome. There are limits on how much weight a vehicle can tow, and this comes in two forms:

  • Braked refers to how much a vehicle can tow when trailer (or flat-towed vehicle) brakes are in use. While, unbraked is legally restricted to 750 kilograms.

Additionally there is:


Gross Combination Mass (GCM)

Gross Combination Mass (GCM), which is the total that the entire rig weighs; including vehicle, trailer and payload.

Tow Ball Mass (TBM)

Tow Ball Mass (TBM), also known as the tow ball weight, this is the weight pushing down on the tow ball by the coupling of the RV being towed.

Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM)

Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) is the maximum legal total loaded mass of a trailer of any type. It’s specified by the manufacturer and includes the TBM.

Gross Trailer Mass (GTM)

Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) is also specified by the manufacturer. This is the legal total weight that can be supported by the wheels of a trailer. For manufacturers it is important to take into consideration because it’s safest for towing to have heavy items like fridges over or near the axles.

It’s important to keep all of these weights in mind when packing an RV like a caravan, because it can be easy to go over the limits if weight factors such as the water carried aren’t considered when getting ready to head out on the road (remember 1L equals 1kg).

Also, placements of items within the RV can significantly impact handling, balance and the tow ball weight. The effect on tow ball weight is fairly simple — the more weight there is towards the front of the van, the higher the ball weight will be. The more weight towards the back of the van, the lighter the ball weight will be. Balance and how the load is distributed will change how a van handles. Too much weight at the back can lift the rear of the tow vehicle, causing poor traction and movement management; too much weight up front can impact a vehicles suspension; It’s best to keep heavy items centrally located over the axles or balanced out with some up the front and some up the back to avoid the weight on the tow ball being too heavy or too light. And too much weight on one side or the other can cause poor handling and sway.

The general rule of thumb is to have equal weight distribution left to right and back to front, while keeping the bulk of the weight as low as possible for a low centre of gravity. Keep heavy items low and central over the axles, while medium weight items can be loaded a little further from the centre and up to the windows. Finally, light items can be stored to the front and back and in overhead lockers.

An overweight caravan can have serious handling issues in tricky terrain or windy conditions, as well as being a major draw at the bowser — and that’s without mentioning the possibility of your insurance being voided if the maximum towing limits are exceeded. This is where weighbridges come in.

There are more than 250 weighbridges Australia-wide (Google will be your best friend when finding the closest to you), they are cheap (from about $30) and are the easiest and quickest way to make sure limits have not been breached before setting off.

Towing a Second Vehicle

It’s not unusual to see motorhomes on the road with a small car or 4WD in tow, so the owners can set up their RV at basecamp and explore further afield without having to pack up every morning. There are three ways of doing this:

  • Flat towing is the simplest method, whereby all four of the vehicle’s wheels are on the ground and it’s simply being pulled along. The vehicle must be connected via an A- frame to the front of its structural frame, there needs to be an independent braking system in operation, and brake lights must be connected. The laws regarding flat towing vary slightly from state to state, in some states you will need an engineering certificate. Your setup must comply to the rules of the state in which it’s registered. Not all cars can be flat towed.
  • Dolly towing is a good alternative for vehicles that cannot be flat towed. A tow dolly is like a small trailer that holds the front wheels off the ground while the back wheels remain on the road, allowing the drivetrain of a front wheel drive car to remain motionless. Dolly’s will be equipped with their own brakes, so no vehicle modifications are required, and they’re simple to use.
  • Trailer towing is when the vehicle is loaded onto a trailer so that none of its wheels are touching the ground. In this instance, regular trailer regulations apply, including trailer brake requirements and so on.

Towing Safety Features

There is some safety equipment specific for towing. First off are extended mirrors. Clear vision behind and around the trailer is necessary for safety on the road, and extended mirrors allow this. There are a range of options available, from those that clip on, to door-mounted varieties and expensive retro-fit ones that replace standard mirrors.

Second are breakaway systems. If you’re towing a van with electric brakes that weighs more than 2000kg a breakaway system is a legal requirement. Consisting of a battery, switch and cable connected to a pin, if a trailer becomes uncoupled from the tow vehicle, the breakaway system activates the brakes to bring it to a safe stop. Legally, the system must be able to hold the brakes for 15 minutes, meaning the type of battery used must be considered and it must be checked regularly.

Another thing to check with this would be electric brakes. Although most RVs still tend to use brake drums, electric brakes, which involves an electromagnet putting pressure onto a brake shoe, are not uncommon. As with anything, it can be good to have it checked by a professional if you aren’t sure.

Driving Big Vehicles

Don’t be phased by driving a larger vehicle. Undoubtedly, the sheer bulk of some motorhomes may put some potential owners off. The little trick is to remember that many motorhomes are still smaller than the majority of commercial trucks and buses on the road and there is a maximum width that all vehicles can be, that’s 2.5m (8ft 2.5in).

  • Start small. Before setting off over the horizon, get a little practice closer to home. Try reversing into your driveway before you try backing up beside a creek — take everything in small, easy steps. Accelerate gently, negotiate some gentle inclines, drive down a windy street. Be attentive to the difference in acceleration, cornering, braking, stopping and overtaking. Make sure you know how tall your rig is, including anything on the roof such as solar panels. Similarly, get used to the width of your van.
  • Large vehicles do have blind spots, particularly around the rear area, so keep this in mind. A rear-view camera can often solve that problem but without one, it’s something to keep in mind. We’ve all seen that sign on the back of trucks that says something like, “If you can’t see my mirrors, then I can’t see you”.
  • Allow extra braking distance. Large and heavy vehicles have much longer stopping distances than normal cars and utes, so giving yourself extra braking distance keeps the blood pressure and stress levels down. Except, of course, when other unhelpful road users duck into the extra braking distance you have left.
  • Give more time for merging. RVs can be long vehicles and require more manoeuvring room in traffic, like when entering freeways or overtaking another vehicle. Not having the same acceleration as smaller vehicles simply means giving more space and time to road manoeuvres.
  • Watch the weather. While driving in bad weather isn’t usually much of a problem, it can be in the event of strong crosswinds. Being bulky objects, motorhomes make nice windbreaks and that can push the motorhome around. The usual solution is to drive a little slower and learn to be a bit more reactive with the steering wheel. That’s something that comes from experience rather than anything else.
  • Plan rest breaks. Any old hand will tell you that taking your time in RV travel is the way to go. To avoid driver (and even passenger) fatigue, plan plenty of rest breaks along the way.
    If some interesting sight happens to appear along the way, then give yourself an extra break and enjoy the scenery. It’s not a bad idea when distances are long for both driver and passenger to take a turn at driving.

Common Driving Dangers

Night Time — no matter how hard you may try to avoid it, chances are you’ll find yourself running behind schedule and hauling into hours of darkness. When the sun goes down, conditions can change substantially so there are a few extra things to be keep in mind.

  • Wildlife are more active at dawn and dusk, particularly at night and in certain colder areas may be attracted to the radiant heat of the bitumen
  • Distances are harder to judge in low light, so it’s best to err on the side of caution
  • Fatigue will increase when you push your body outside of its usual rhythm
  • Lack of stimulation can cause drivers to lose focus, so it’s a good idea to listen to lively music, podcasts or chat with a companion to stay engaged

Offroad — if you don’t have an offroad motorhome then it’s best that you stick to the blacktop. However, if you do find yourself down a dusty track, you should proceed with caution as rough terrain towing is a beast unto itself.

The most important component on loose surfaces is controlling speed. Remember that you have far less friction and it can be easy to underestimate how much extra care will be needed. Corrugations add another level of complication by causing suspension to unload, removing weight from the wheel and reducing traction even further. Avoid dead-end and tight, closed in tracks, especially when they have tight turns and overhanging branches.

Trucks — whether a truck is overtaking you, you are overtaking a truck or you’re passing in opposite directions, the big dogs of the highways can be intimidating. These big rigs are large and hard to manoeuvre, so you’re best to play it safe and make it easy for them.

If a truck attempts to overtake you, ease up on the accelerator and allow it to pass. Do not speed up when you reach an overtaking lane, as it’s safer to have a road train in front than behind. When trucks are approaching in the opposite direction on narrow roads, gently slow down and allow plenty of room for them to pass. Your left-hand tyres may even need to leave the bitumen when you encounter wide loads. Keep a sharp eye ahead and play it safe. Tuning your CB radio into channel 40 may also alert you to any oncoming wide loads.


Animal Strikes

The chance of colliding with animals on the open road is a distinct possibility, the majority being kangaroos and wallabies. Chances of an animal strike are greater at dawn and dusk, when many creatures are more active, and close to permanent water sources. It’s also advised that you never throw food out of the window, as it will attract wildlife.

Most importantly, if you find yourself barrelling toward a critter, do not swerve. The vast majority of fatalities related to animal incidents on the road are caused by drivers swerving to avoid collision. Though it may not be a pleasant thought, your safest option is to stay on course, particularly if you’re driving a large vehicle.

No matter how attentive a driver you are, it’s impossible to predict the exact moment a roo might bound across your path. It may be wise to have a bull bar fitted to reduce the danger to you and your passengers should such a collision take place, and some strong spotlights if you’re driving at night.

There’s also a chance you might come across a bovine roadblock in your travels. When it comes to right of way and liability this is a complicated area full of archaic laws and state to state legislation. You’re far more likely to spot a slow-moving cow well before it’s up in your grill, unlike a bounding roo, so the general procedure is to stop and wait for them to get out of the way. It goes without saying that hitting a cow would not be pleasant for any party involved, and you’ll likely end up with a disgruntled farmer to deal with too. Keep your eyes peeled for ‘give way to stock’ signs that indicate when an area can be used for grazing or moving cattle, and heed all ‘stop’ signs.

In the unfortunate event you do come into unpleasant contact with an animal, there are a few alternate endings. If it’s little and still alive, you’re advised to gently pick it up with a towel or blanket, place it in a well-ventilated box and take it to a vet. If it’s too big, best to stay with it until help arrives. In the situation that the animal needs to be put out of its misery, be sure you are able to do so in a swift and humane fashion. And before all’s said and done, make sure the road is clear; this may mean hauling the beast off the road and about 10 metres from the edge.

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