Trailer Training and Testing
The change to the licensing and testing system on 1st January 1997 saw the introduction of one completely new test, the B+E car and trailer test. The other tests for "new categories" were simply extensions of the existing LGV and PCV tests. Although the licence and test have been in for around 8 years now, a huge number of people including, regrettably, some instructors, are completely unaware of it. This has led to numerous incidents of people driving unlicensed and uninsured through ignorance of the law.
The regulations concerning towing trailers were not designed to be straightforward and easy to understand. They were originally prepared by a European Committee but were then dragged through the political consultation process during which various groups succeeded in obtaining concessions to reduce the impact of the regulations.
A B+E driving licence is required to tow large trailers behind a motor car. A motor car is defined as a vehicle with no more than 8 passenger seats, and with a maximum permitted weight not exceeding 3500 Kgs - in effect this means most vehicles up to the size of a Transit, apart from a minibus.
A trailer is anything towed by a vehicle. So caravans, horse boxes, car transporters etc. are all trailers. So is a broken down car towed by another vehicle, and the driver of the towing car usually needs to hold a B+E licence.
Trailers with a gross weight of less than 750 kgs are ignored by the regulations and can be towed by all car licence holders. Trailers under 750 kgs are easy to identify because they usually do not have brakes as they are not required to by the Construction and Use Regulations. Trailers over 750 kgs have to have brakes, usually "over run" brakes worked from the tow ball, but some heavy trailers have highly sophisticated brake systems worked electrically or by compressed air.
There is one major exemption which needs to be properly understood: A driver without a B+E licence can tow heavy trailers providing the gross weight of the trailer is less than the unladen weight of the towing vehicle and the whole combination weighs less than 3500 kgs. This means that a post 97 licence holder can tow a trailer with a gross weight of around 1.5 tonnes, providing the towing vehicle and trailer are carefully matched. The combination needs to be very carefully matched however, because if the driver gets it wrong and the exemption is not fully complied with, it will fail, and the driver is then unlicensed, and uninsured.
To know what licence is required, it is essential to identify the precise maximum permitted weight of the trailer - often a difficult task on older or home made trailers - and then find the precise kerb weight of the towing vehicle to ensure the gross trailer weight is less than the car's unladen weight. It is then essential to ensure the combination is less than 3500 kgs, so the maximum permitted weight of the trailer must be added to the weight of the towing vehicle. The final check is look in the vehicle handbook to find out what the maximum permitted towing weight for the car is. This can be quite a frightener because many modern cars have very low towing limits and some are not type approved to tow anything.
If the combination does not clearly come within the exemption, the only safe course is for the driver to take a B+E test. It is clear that this message has not got to most employers or the general public because the numbers taking B+E tests are extremely low. It was not surprising that candidate numbers were low to start with but they were lower than anyone expected: In 1997, DSA only conducted 20 B+E tests. However, as the numbers of post 97 licence holders increases, the demand for B+E training and tests would be expected to rise dramatically.
Working on the assumption that DSA conduct around 1.2 million car tests a year, with a pass rate nationally of around 45% -50%, then each year 540,000 new drivers qualify. As 8 years have passed since 1997, there are now going to be around 4.3 million drivers out there without a B+E licence, and a few of them will need to tow a heavy trailer. If only 1% actually need the licence, that would be 43,000 people, and assuming a 50% pass rate, one could expect DSA to have done around 85,000 B+E tests by now. A recent DSA consultation document admitted that DSA had "averaged 250 B+E tests a year for the last 2 years (2002 and 2003)." This figure can be compared with the number done by the Ministry of Defence, who do their own testing, and who average over 4000 per annum!
The only conclusion that can be drawn is that a lot of people are towing trailers illegally, unlicensed and uninsured.
Although they are officially car tests, and come under the car test regulations, B+E tests are conducted at the DSA LGV Test centres by the LGV examiners. They occupy vocational driving test slots and cost the same as LGV and PCV tests, currently £85.00 on weekdays.
Vehicles and trailers used for B+E tests have to meet the DSA minimum test vehicle standards. These are in the process of changing so are a bit confusing at the moment. If the towing vehicle was registered before October 2003, any trailer can be used that has a maximum permitted weight of at least 1 tonne but on newer vehicles the trailer must be a closed box trailer, as wide as or slightly narrower than the towing vehicle so the driver can only see to the rear by using the mirrors. From July 2007, all B+E test must be conducted with closed box trailers of at least 1 tonne.
As B+E tests are car tests, the towing vehicle must meet the usual car test requirements - L plates, seat belts and head restraints for the driver and examiner, etc. including an internal mirror for the examiner, which is a little odd when tests are taken towing a large box trailer which is legally required to completely block the candidate's, and the examiner's view! The other amusing anomaly is that the vehicle must be capable of 63 mph (100 kph) while the maximum permitted speed for a vehicle towing a trailer in the UK is 60 mph.
The B+E test follows the vocational test format with the reversing and braking exercises conducted "off street" in the test centre. These exercises are the same as the LGV ones and details of the layout can be found in the DSA publications and on their web site so there is little point in repeating them here, but there is one difference in the reversing exercise: On LGV tests, the extreme rear of the trailer has to be above the 0.5 metre black and yellow stopping area but candidates for B+E tests can be anywhere in the larger, 3 foot, yellow area.
The road drive is round an LGV test route, usually around 15 miles long, and takes up to one hour. The test does not include the downhill start or gear changing exercise which are only included in vocational tests. The test marking is the same as other tests with up to 15 driving faults allowed, but with double the time in which to make them!
At the end of the test the candidate returns to the test centre and has to uncouple the trailer, park the towing vehicle alongside it, and then re-couple. This does cause some difficulty as lining up the tow hitch and trailer can be tricky. If the trailer is light enough, the candidate can move it onto the coupling by hand but with heavy trailers it is a case of learning to position the vehicle precisely. Candidates are expected to know, and demonstrate, the essential safety procedures and checks when coupling and un-coupling and will fail if they miss a safety related check.
As the market for B+E training increases, and eventually it must, many instructors will want to get involved and may consider getting a trailer so they can offer the additional qualification. There are a number of pitfalls which can catch the unwary:
Teaching a candidate to reverse a trailer can be a long slow process and can be very hard on the clutch. Constant reversing can heat the clutch up quite rapidly and this will cause premature clutch wear. It is important to take the vehicle for a drive frequently during reversing sessions so a reasonable air flow passes over the transmission and the heat is dissipated.
You cannot teach a candidate to reverse a trailer on the road or in your local supermarket car park. You have to have a safe, off street, reversing area and in parts of the country, these can be hard, and expensive, to get access to.
If you buy a trailer, you need somewhere very safe to keep it. Trailers do not have registration numbers or MoT certificates and if some low life steals your trailer, you are very unlikely to get it back. Trailers are expensive and easy to sell so are well worth stealing and thousands go missing every year. If you decide to buy a second hand training trailer, you must take great care to avoid buying a stolen one. A recent study found that 50% of second hand horse trailers advertised for sale had been stolen!
Trailer training can make a nice change from an instructor's normal work and can be profitable, but it can be a nightmare if not organised properly.
2005 Chairman of AIRSO
Managing Director of Big Wheelers Ltd