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How to tow a car

Knowing how to tow a car is a skill all drivers should learn. Whether you're the one who's broken down or you've just got a call from a friend in need, our guide will tell you how to safely and legally tow a car.

The law

Towing rules vary depending on how many years' driving experience you have. If you passed your test after 1 January 1997 and haven't taken a specific towing test, then restrictions apply — take a look at the Gov.UK website for more information.

There is an exception to the law: if a car's broken down and it's causing an obstruction or posing a threat to other road users, a fully-qualified driver's allowed to move it to an area of safety even if the weight exceeds the limit.

The law states the person behind the wheel of the broken down vehicle must hold a full licence and be qualified to drive that class of vehicle. The car being towed must be taxed, insured and have a valid MOT if applicable; and an 'On Tow' sign must be clearly placed at the back to warn other road users.

If you're towing the car using a strap, rope or chain, the maximum distance allowed between the two vehicles's 4.5 metres (14'9''). If the distance exceeds 1.5 metres (5') then the strap, rope or chain must be highly visible to other drivers within a reasonable distance — tying a brightly-coloured cloth in the middle can help. And if you're towing the car at night, you need to switch on lights as normal.

The basics

Always think safety first. If you have reason to believe towing the car might be dangerous — due to factors like poor weather, difficult terrain or nearby traffic — then call for assistance. If you've decided it's safe to tow, bear the following in mind:

  • Only cars with a manual gearbox can be towed, so if you drive an automatic you'll have to phone for help.
  • The car doing the pulling needs to be fit for the job — its towing capacity must be sufficient enough to get the other car moving.
  • The best way to tow a car's to use a specific tow strap, with hooks on either end, which easily clip onto both cars. Chains can be used but it's possible for the links to stretch and break under the strain.

Before you start towing

Placed the 'On Tow' sign where other drivers can see it? Good. But before you set off, here's what you need to do:

  • Check the rope or strap, and poles, for any weaknesses or damage, as breakage during a tow could be dangerous.
  • Agree on a set of communication signals and plan your route. If possible, avoid built-up areas or routes that require a lot of stopping and starting.
  • The tow rope, strap or chain should be attached to the strong steel hooks of both cars. Don't try connecting the hooks to bumpers, as it's likely they'll get ripped off.
  • Leave the ignition switch on in the car being towed to disengage the steering lock. If the car has power steering or power-assisted brakes (the majority of newer cars), you'll have to use some elbow grease to operate it when the engine's off and it's being towed.

Towing a car safely

If you're towing a car:

Slow and steady wins the race, so drive with extreme caution and never exceed 15mph. Use the clutch to gently pull away — this will prevent any sudden yanking of the rope which could cause it to break.

On the road, avoid any sudden braking. One trick's to tap lightly on the brake in advance of any actual braking, as the light will act as a warning to the other driver. Never use the towing poles as a brake for the vehicle being towed.

Indicate in plenty of time to inform the other driver. Avoid excessive movements and sudden changes of direction as the other driver might find it difficult to steer and brake with you. Regularly check your mirrors to make sure everything's alright and pull over if you notice sudden changes in your oil pressure or temperature gauges.

If you're the driver being towed…

Making sure the car's in neutral and the handbrake's off and switch on the ignition so the steering lock's disengaged. Steer and brake in coordination with the other driver, while watching out for brake lights and indicators.

The trick's to keep the strap, rope or chain taut at all times to prevent any uncomfortable jolting — pressing lightly on the brake will help you do this.

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