Keeping Horse Trailers Safe on the Road

Keeping Horse Trailers Safe on the Road

Article sponsored by Reflective Pro Custom Safety Products

Let’s face it, the addition of a trailer to any vehicle increases the risk of an accident. This fact confirmed by multiple accident studies that show that trailer/passenger vehicle combinations are especially prone to mishaps. The larger and longer the trailer, the greater the risk of an accident, and with accidents come personal injury, fatalities, and property damage. 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that from 1975 through 2020, approximately 21,000 people lost their lives and 1,080,000 were injured in crashes involving passenger vehicles towing trailers.  The estimated cost of just these trailer related accidents in medical bills, property damage, and other liability is over 1.7 billion dollars or 39,000,000 dollars per year.  

A recent study that analyzed the circumstances contributing to highway accidents revealed that wrecks involving a trailer and a vehicle together resulted in a higher percentage of deaths, personal injury, and property damage when compared to accidents involving single vehicles. The study also showed that single driver accidents where no other driver is involved are much more common when that vehicle is towing a trailer, especially a large trailer.  In other words, simply driving alone on the highway, towing a large trailer, is dangerous.  As most people are aware, heavy trailers that take control of a vehicle and then jackknife often result in very serious accidents and in many cases death or serious injury.  Accidents of this nature are often characterized by a flipped vehicle that has tumbled out of control because of the physics of a heavy trailer attached to a rear hitch.  At slow speeds in town, these events normally result in serious property damage and some injuries.  At high speeds on an interstate or winding road, these types of accidents are many times more serious.

Horse trailers present an even more difficult and dangerous scenario than smaller lighter trailers.  This is because most horse or animal transport trailers are very heavy, much larger, and more difficult to maneuver than an average trailer.  Also, unlike a standard cargo trailer, the occupants of a horse trailer can shift positions, thus creating more challenges for the driver.  Lastly, the majority of horse trailers are being towed by passenger type vehicles like pickup trucks with non commercially trained drivers.

There is another factor to consider with horse trailers specifically, that is the horses they carry.  Horses are beautiful, intelligent creatures, and like all animals, they trust that we will take care of them and keep them safe. Here is a fact.  The probability of a horse being injured is the greatest when they are being transported. Accidents during the transportation process place a horse in more danger than at any other time in their life. And like all accidents, they are, mostly, avoidable.  So let’s quickly break down all the causes of accidents involving horse trailers and discuss them briefly.

- Causes of Horse Trailer Accidents -

The causes of accidents involving vehicles towing horse trailers are in some ways unique, and in other ways very much like accidents involving single vehicles.  Some causes applicable to both trailered and non trailered vehicles are - driver fatigue, failure to stop or yield to other traffic (aggressive driving), alcohol, distracted driving, poor weather, vehicle failure, excessive speed, and poor judgment calls in traffic. (improper response to other drivers - evidence of lack of training - add something about inexperience)  These causes often result in rear-ending the vehicle in front of you, striking a pedestrian or animal, running off the road and losing control or cutting off another vehicle and causing a collision. All avoidable.

Causes specific to trailer towing are - incorrect hitching, impaired visibility, trailer failure (tire, brakes, etc..), shifting cargo, improperly distributed weight (too heavy or too light at the hitch), too big of a trailer and too small of a vehicle, and increased stop time because of weight. (Note - the aforementioned items all increase the risk of jack-knifing)  With proper training, preparation, diligence and good judgment, these are also, mostly, avoidable.  Also, keep in mind that what seems safe in city driving at 35 mph may not be safe on the highway at 75 mph.

- Increasing the Probability of a Safe Trip while Towing -

Preventing accidents brought on by the causes listed above can be accomplished through driver training, strict maintenance schedules, frequent equipment checks, responsible driving (no alcohol), proper hitching with backup safety precautions (chains, lock pins), matching vehicle size to trailer size, using a center bed hitch and trailer to prevent jackknifing, getting sleep when needed, waiting out bad weather, and better risk management when making split-second decisions. Let me add that an alert navigator in the passenger seat is probably the best way to prevent accidents caused by driver error.

All the situations outlined above are within the vehicle and trailer's owner/driver’s control.  Navigator included.  The power to prevent an accident from the events above is controllable or preventable by the driver and navigator.  At a minimum, the driver/navigator team can substantially increase the probability of a safe trip.  So have a plan.  A plan for maintenance. A plan that ensures proper hookup of the trailer and safety devices.  A plan for periodic checks of your vehicle and trailer.  A plan to avoid being distracted while driving.  A plan that involves driving as a team (driver/navigator).  

- Safety from Other Drivers, The Issue of Visibility -

There is another type of accident that is unique because it falls mostly outside the driver’s control. That is being struck by another vehicle. When I say it is outside the driver’s control, I mean that the driver of the vehicle and horse trailer cannot prevent someone else from hitting them.  The fact is that being struck by another vehicle often sets in motion a chain of events that can cause the driver towing the horse trailer to lose control of the vehicle, and even when they can maintain control and can stop safely, horses are often injured or killed by this event.  So preventing this type of incident is important.

The good news is that drivers of other vehicles want nothing more than to avoid collisions.  As they drive, they are constantly looking for danger and avoiding it at all costs.  But remember, other drivers can only avoid what they can see.  In almost all cases, the driver that strikes another vehicle did so because they did not see the other vehicle in time to avoid a collision. So since other drivers will avoid a collision with what they can see, making your horse trailer visible to them is the key to preventing rear-end or side collisions.  When these collisions occur, and they do quite often, they are mostly due to insufficient lighting and conspicuity.

Let’s talk about the events that lead up to an unintentional collision with your horse trailer and another automobile approaching from the rear.  For illustration, assume your horse trailer had standard, from the factory lighting which will be the brake and running lights and possibly some smaller lights for the top corners.  For this example, and to illustrate a worst case scenario, lets assume that there are no other reflective markings or lights. 

Scenario 1 - It’s daytime and a driver is approaching you from behind at high speeds.  Normally, at quite a distance away, they spot you and have time to determine fairly quickly that you are a vehicle towing a trailer, so they are more careful as they approach.  As they get closer, they realize that you are hauling horses.  They are careful as they pass by and even try to get a glimpse of your horses as they pass.  This is a good scenario.  

Scenario 2 - It’s night time and the approaching vehicle gets much closer before they realize what you are and what you are hauling. Especially if the trailer color scheme is dark.  Until maybe a thousand feet away, theother driver is confused as to what they are seeing, but still cautious.  They will depend on their headlights to light you up and at this point, they will hopefully know that you are hauling horses and be especially careful as they pass.  Because it is dark, the risk for an accident in this scenario has increased because of shorter response times and impaired visibility.  However, the outcome is normally good.

Scenario 3 - Finally, let’s switch to a night time scenario with rain or snow.  Low visibility and dangerous road conditions.  Ironically, more time is now needed to respond in these conditions, but less time is available.  A driver is coming up behind you at high speeds, but you have slowed down because of the poor weather.  The lighting system for our trailer example is minimal, especially for these conditions, fine for the daytime, but poor for night time in foul weather. As drivers approach, they will hopefully see your lower tail lights out about 1000 feet.   But they are dim in the rain.  Barely enough light to cut through the nasty weather for any real distance.  Depending on their speed and on your speed, they may or may not have time to react. If they do not have time to react, a collision will occur and you would have no warning.  This is the highest risk scenario, and since all of us have driven in these conditions, we know what it is like.

In these three scenarios, you can see how darkness and inclement weather can significantly increase risk when towing, both for you, and other vehicles. The question is, in all three scenarios, how can our  risk of being struck by another vehicle be mitigated. The good news is that insufficient lighting and conspicuity can be easily and permanently corrected. You can make yourself visible on roads and highways in all conditions. 

Consider this. Unless well lit or marked with reflective strips, large cargo, horse, or livestock trailers appear as more of a large blank wall to approaching vehicles.  The outline is vague and confusing. The human mind, which desperately tries to keep us safe, has trouble discerning what the eyes are seeing, and by the time it makes a determination, a collision may have already occurred. 

I consulted with ReflectivePro to determine the best way to mark a trailer that will be in heavy traffic.  The goal being making it clearly visible in all light and weather conditions.  Here is what they recommended.

Make sure your factory lighting is fully functional.  That means fresh bright bulbs with no malfunctions.  

To reduce rear-end collisions, use a medium to large reflective panel, or several panels on the back of your trailer that approaching vehicles can see even in inclement conditions.  You do not have to use any particular color combination or pattern, but by all means, give other drivers a way to see you from at least a thousand feet away as they approach. A good idea is to outline the back of your trailer with reflective material.  This can be done with reflective rectangles positioned every foot or so.  The idea is simply to show the shape of your trailer at night when light reflects off of it.  By doing this, you create a recognizable shape that the human mind can process in a split second and react to.  Helping other drivers identify you from a long distance away will give them the opportunity to adjust their speed as they approach and exercise caution.  As I stated before, no driver wants to be in an accident, but they have to see you in time to avoid you.

For the sides of your vehicle, the outline approach is also recommended.  At night, a large outline pulling out into traffic will get the attention of other drivers much quicker than just the few small red lights that the factory provides.  A reflective graphic design will also work.  This will help prevent side collisions.

So in summary, in an effort to make your trip with your horses as safe as possible, our recommendations are as follows -

Have a written list of safety checks that you can do before you leave on your trip. This list should include safety chains, pins, tire pressure, etc..

Pull off and check tires, lights, horses, etc.. every hour or so depending on conditions.

Delegate tasks to the driver and navigator.  Each with their own responsibilities and authority.  Help each other to do their job.  Think about it as a pilot/co-pilot relationship with safety as the main goal.

Outfit your truck and trailer with retro-reflective panels, strips, and tape.  Use the good stuff.  Saving $10 and buying tape that has an effective range of a few hundred feet is a waste of money.  At speeds of 75 to 85 miles per hour, you need to been seen for thousands of feet away.  Quality prismatic reflective tape can accomplish this goal.  Cheap tape will not.

Teamwork, maintenance, proper hookup, frequent equipment checks and plenty of reflectivity can greatly increase your probability of making a safe trip with your precious cargo.  Accidents don't have to be inevitable.

Steven Cole - Reflective Inc.