Tips for driving an articulated truck with a trailer

An articulated truck with a trailer is reversing in an empty parking lot

First time driving with a trailer? Truck driving can be a stressful gig for beginners, but once you’ve got a good handle on best practices for towing a trailer safely, you’ll be on the road to driving any truck trailer with confidence.

In this article, we’ve broken down the key steps and most important rules on how to safely drive a truck with a trailer.

Get the right truck driving licence

Driving an articulated truck requires specialist skills and a special driver’s licence. According to the Australian Trucking Association, articulated trucks are comprised of a prime mover and the following configurations:

1. A semi-trailer coupled by a turntable or B-coupling;

2. A trailer unit with conventional drawbar or converter dolly with drawbar; or

3. Trailers coupled via a turntable mounted on the forward trailer.

These trucks and trailer combos are primarily used to transport freight. Depending on what you need to transport, our truck trailers for hire are available in open top, extendable, flat rack, drop deck, tautliner, or flatbed.

Before you hop in the driver’s seat, get familiar with the transport equipment you’ll be driving, such as the towing vehicle’s Maximum Towing Capacity, Gross Trailer Mass, and Trailer Ball Load. 

If you’re not sure, check your vehicle’s handbook or speak to your transport equipment provider beforehand. Being aware of your vehicle specifications and weight limits is essential to avoid any accidents.

Driving forward with a trailer

Driving a truck with a trailer hitched on the back is very different to driving a rigid vehicle.

When an articulated vehicle negotiates a turn, the path of the back wheels has a smaller radius than that of the front wheels, which causes the rear of the vehicle to ‘cut-in’ when turning.

It is essential that the driver allows for this when cornering to prevent the rear wheels running off the road and damaging kerbing, traffic lights, signs, power poles, or another vehicle.  Adjust your speed to accommodate safe turning.

You will have seen signage on trucks that says “Do not overtake turning vehicle”. This is because articulated vehicles have to be positioned differently to rigid trucks to turn left or right. 

If the turn is sharp, then you will have to position the vehicle in the inside lane to turn right or the outside lane to turn left. 

When doing these manoeuvres, you should pay special attention to your mirrors as it is not uncommon for inexperienced or intolerant car drivers to attempt to pass the larger vehicle.

Braking with a trailer

Driving a truck with a fully loaded trailer requires caution and calm when braking. Follow these general driving safety tips while towing a trailer:

  • Watch your speed and keep it lower than usual to accommodate your trailer, especially in heavy traffic or when changing lanes.
  • Allow a greater stopping distance of around 15 seconds to reduce the likelihood of accidents. Pay attention to the road in front of you, scanning for any potential hazards so that you have as much time as possible to prepare.
  • Instead of hitting the brakes immediately, start by taking your foot off the accelerator so that the weight from your trailer isn’t thrown forward. Then, start braking gradually.

Reversing with a trailer

Probably the most difficult manoeuvre is safely reversing an articulated vehicle with a trailer. 

Steering a trailer in reverse can be confusing for novice drivers. This is because a trailer will usually move the opposite way in which you turn the steering wheel.

If you turn the steering wheel left, the rear of your trailer will move to the right; if you turn it right, it will go left.

Depending on how much space you have and conditions around you, start by ensuring you have a clear line of sight behind you by:

  • Adjusting your mirrors out so you can clearly see the rear of the trailer. If your truck has telescoping mirrors, use them to help increase the visibility of your trailer.
  • If your view of the trailer is blocked, use your reverse camera (if your vehicle has one) or a spotter to guide you.
  • If no one is available, get out of the truck and orientate yourself so that you know where the potential obstacles are. 

When reversing, keep your hands on the bottom of the steering wheel. Move back slowly, and keep an eye on your surroundings and the position of your trailer. 

You want to prevent the trailer from drifting too far to the left or the right of your prime mover in case it jack-knifes – which is where the trailer has swung out from the prime mover to create a 90 degree angle. 

Besides potentially damaging the equipment, this can be difficult to get out of and dangerous on busy roads.

To avoid jack-knifing and to keep your trailer on track, you’ll need to pause, move forward a little bit, and straighten up so that the trailer remains directly behind you. 

The key is to take your time and make small adjustments as you go: don’t be pressured by other drivers around you, or you’ll be more likely to make a mistake.

What to do if your trailer starts swaying

Truck drivers dread the heart-stopping sight of their trailer swaying on the road at high speeds – so, how can you avoid and recover from it quickly?

Trailer sway can be caused by various environmental conditions or human error, such as sudden gusts of wind and change of direction, or an uneven weight distribution or load that exceeds the trailer’s weight limit.

If you notice the trailer starting to sway, follow the same steps you would when braking safely: ease off the accelerator first, then brake gradually to slow it down and allow the trailer to get back in line with your prime mover.

Some trailers may actually have a trailer sway control device installed on it, which can prevent this from occurring. Check for one ahead of time or ask your transport equipment hire company about this feature.

Looking for truck trailer hire?

At Rentco, we are Australia’s go-to providers for truck and trailer rentals. Our rates cover vehicle insurance, maintenance, and storage, helping you save more while giving you the peace of mind that you are working with top-quality equipment that gets the job done.

To enquire about our fleet of equipment for hire or for more information about vehicle specs and features, get in touch with your nearest Rentco depot and we’ll be happy to help you.