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Safer vehicles

Buying a safe caravan / camper trailer

The caravan and camping industry is the fastest growing domestic tourism sector in Australia, offering the consumer a diverse variety of caravans and camper trailers to choose from.

Buying a safe, compliant caravan or camper trailer

Manufacturers and importers must ensure the vehicles they supply to the market are built for safe road use and comply with the Australian Design Rules. These rules are the national standards for the construction of vehicles for safe road use and cover all aspects of safety such as vehicle structure, braking, lighting and a range of miscellaneous items.

While the majority of caravans and camper trailers on the market today do meet these standards, in such a competitive industry a small number of manufacturers or importers are supplying vehicles that do not comply with these requirements.

How will you tow your caravan or camper trailer?

Towing with an underpowered, or under braked vehicle is not just tiring and inconvenient, it's unsafe. Check what you can tow with your vehicle before you start to shop for a new caravan or trailer:

  • What is your towing vehicle's towing capacity?
  • What is your tow bar rating?
  • What is your tow bar's ball rating?
  • What is the Tare Weight and Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) of the caravan or trailer you intend to buy?
  • Is there an option to tow via a turntable or fifth wheel?
  • Is your current vehicle capable of towing your new caravan or trailer?

Your vehicle towing capacity

Generally a motor vehicle with a Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) not exceeding 4.5 tonnes must not tow a trailer with a mass (including any load) exceeding either the capacity of the towing apparatus fitted to the tow vehicle or the maximum trailer mass specified by the vehicle manufacturer, whichever is the least. You will be able to find the maximum recommended tow rating for your vehicle in the manufacturer's handbook. Be careful when reading your handbook that the information you read is for your model and drive layout. There will often be a considerable difference between the maximum values for different model variants and between the two and four wheel drive configurations.

The tow bar

Tow bars are fitted with a choice of towing hitches. It is important to ensure that the mass of your caravan or trailer, when fully loaded, does not exceed the recommended rating of the tow bar.

All tow bars manufactured after 1 July 1988, are required to display the maximum load on the vehicle plate or stamped onto the tow bar. If you are unable to identify the manufacturer or locate this information on your tow bar, it is recommended that you contact a tow bar manufacturer and ask to have the tow bar's capacity assessed.

The tow ball (and trailer coupling)

The tow ball fitted to your tow bar and the coupling on your new caravan or trailer must be suitable for the maximum mass you will be towing when fully loaded. A standard 50mm ball is intended for towing trailers of up to 3500kg or 3.5 tonnes, and the coupling will have the maximum trailer ATM marked on it (in kg or tonnes depending on the rating). If you have any doubts about either of these seek advice from the manufacturer or a supplier.

It might not be immediately obvious when you look, but the ball and the coupling are both subject to wear, so clean and shiny is nice, but seek advice if you can see scuffing or wear and remember they will need to be kept greased when in use.

Fifth wheel mounted caravans

Fifth wheel mounted caravans are not your run of the mill caravan attachment. You should check out the manufacturer's specifications and seek advice if you have any doubts on the weight rating. Remember that an ordinary driving licence is limited by weight, so check out what the maximum mass is that you can drive before you buy.

Caravan or camper trailer mass

The caravan or trailer manufacturer's vehicle plate must provide you with the Tare and ATM.

There are major risks involved with towing a caravan or camper trailer using an undersized towing vehicle.

These include:

  • Accidents caused by the poor handling of such a combination.
  • Chassis and transmission damage to your vehicle.
  • Brake failure to your towing vehicle because your vehicle is under-braked for the weight of the trailer.

Setting your caravan up

Getting a caravan or trailer that does not exceed your vehicle's towing capacity is essential, and loading it ready to travel is just as important. You will need to ensure that it is:

  • Not overloaded.
  • Balanced correctly.

Towing a poorly balanced or overloaded caravan or camper trailer will cause poor handling and is a widely recognised cause of accidents.

The ATM of your caravan or trailer is shared between the weight transmitted to the road through the wheels and that which acts on the tow ball. Good loading will help to ensure your caravan or trailer is balanced and stable when you are towing, and does not unduly affect the handling or control of the towing vehicle.

Every litre of water in your tank weighs a kilo, then there are the gas bottles, clothes, towels and bedding, all those essential things in the kitchen and for the bathroom, plus you'll fill up the fridge and probably take along a few beers and toys.

The difference between Tare and Aggregate is all the capacity that you have for loading, so it is essential that you check out the caravan or trailer manufacturer's information and be honest with yourself about the things you'll need to make your holiday comfortable and enjoyable. Then think again because you will underestimate the weight of the gear you'll want to carry with you.

Electrical wiring and gas installations

Electrical wiring should have been fitted and certified by a licensed electrician.

All gas installations should have been fitted and certified by a licensed gas fitter.

To ensure all installations comply with the requirements of the Australian Standards, ask the dealer to provide you with the Certificate of Compliance issued by the person who undertook these installations.

Further information refer to Caravans and Motorhomes fact sheet MR806

Safety chains

The safety chain on your caravan or trailer coupling must have a rating that is adequate for the ATM of that caravan or trailer.

Registration standards for caravans and camper trailers

While many vehicles manufactured in Australia or imported from overseas comply with the national standard provided by the Australian Design Rules, there are manufacturers and importers who are selling vehicles which do not comply with these requirements.

Also all imported caravans and camper trailers must be modified to comply with the Australian Design Rules that were in force at the time the caravan or camper trailer was manufactured.

All Australian manufactured caravans and trailers manufactured after 1989 must comply with the Vehicle Standards Bulletin 1- Building Small Trailers.

This bulletin is a compilation of the Australian Design Rule requirements that apply to trailers (including caravans) with an ATM of 4.5 tonnes or less.

Common compliance problems

There are major safety issues associated with buying a non compliant caravan or camper trailer.

The following list outlines some of the common compliance issues and these should be considered prior to making your purchase. If in doubt, do not complete the purchase until you are satisfied with the requirements or have been provided with evidence by the seller that the vehicle meets the national standards for registration.

  • Caravan or camper trailer has too much rear over-hang (the maximum allowable over-hang is 3.7 metres or 60% of the wheelbase).
  • Caravan or camper trailer is too wide (the maximum allowable width is 2.5 metres).
  • Caravan or camper trailer is too long (the maximum allowable length is 12.5 metres).
  • Caravan or camper trailer is too high (the maximum allowable height is 4.3 meters).
  • The tare weight of the caravan or trailer is more than what is stated on the vehicle plate.
  • Insufficient braking system installed – all trailers with a weight of 750kg Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) or greater are required to be fitted with an efficient braking system.
  • Underrated towbars or tow balls.
  • Missing or inadequate safety chain.
  • Insufficient clearance between axles.
  • Not enough rear angle of departure (ground clearance).
  • No entrance / exit door on the left hand side or rear of a caravan.
  • Non compliant electrical wiring and liquefied petroleum gas installations.
  • Incorrect lighting (mainly on imported vehicles).

Manufacturers or importers vehicle plate

Before a caravan or camper trailer can be registered and used on the road, the manufacturer or importer must affix a vehicle plate to the trailer (including caravans), providing the manufacturer's specifications of the trailer and certifying that the trailer complies with the Motor Vehicles Standards Act 1989.

This Act outlines the national standards required in preparing a caravan or trailer for registration.plates

A typical vehicle trailer plate must show at least the following information:

  • Manufacturer's or Importer's Name.
  • Trailer Model.
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).
  • Date of manufacture.
  • Aggregate Trailer Mass (kg).

Certification statement stating that the vehicle is manufactured to comply / or if an imported vehicle, modified and assessed to comply, with the Motor Vehicles Standards Act 1989. Vehicle Identification Number

All vehicles and trailers manufactured after 1988 must be identified by means of a 17 character Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Vehicles and trailers must be marked with the Vehicle Identification Number.

Safety tips for towing a caravan or camper trailer

Driving any trailer is a skill. When you get out on the road with your new caravan or camper trailer remember:

  • It will feel different and journeys will be a little more tiring particularly until you are accustomed to driving your new caravan or trailer
  • It will take longer to stop, so you will need to allow more distance between yourself and other vehicles
  • You will feel the air flow from around other vehicles as you travel, particularly the large vehicles , but if you are compliant this shouldn't cause you any real problems
  • Your journey will take a little longer than if you were travelling without a trailer

Give yourself a bit more space on the road, think a bit further in advance about potential hazards and the manoeuvres you want to make, and don't expect to travel at quite your normal speeds. But you are on holiday so it's good to take your time.

See also Safety tips - Towing a caravan


ATM (Aggregate Trailer Mass) - means the total mass of the caravan or trailer when carrying the maximum load recommended by the manufacturer.

Ball load - means the actual load in kilograms that is exerted onto the tow bar of the tow vehicle when stationary. It does not mean the mass exerted on the ball when towing.

GTM (Gross Trailer Mass) - means the mass transmitted to the ground by the tyres of the trailer when coupled to a towing vehicle and carrying the maximum load recommended by the manufacturer or importer.

Tare weight - means the mass of the caravan or trailer with all original equipment manufacturer fitted but with empty water tanks, and without any luggage or personal effects (LPG cylinders are not included, unless they are supplied as standard equipment).

Useful information sources

Vehicle Standards Bulletin1, Building Small Trailers
Vehicle Standards Bulletins10, Importing Vehicles to Australia
Safety Tips - Towing a Caravan

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