When the boss says hitch up the job trailer and go get another load, you go. But do you really know what you're doing when you're dragging all that weight around back there?

According to recent studies, if you're like most drivers who use their vehicles to tow, you don't–and you're putting yourself and everyone else on the road at risk. If you're a contractor, that kind of liability can add up to serious downtime for crews, equipment, and jobs, and higher costs for insurance and healthcare.

Over the past several years, Master Lock, a major manufacturer of trailering equipment, has researched the way drivers stow and tow, and the results aren't pretty. In 2004, the last year complete figures were available, there were 65,000 trailer accidents that resulted in thousands of injuries and deaths–a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

One major finding of the studies: Most drivers who towed vehicles admitted they didn't have a clue as to how to properly set up or handle a trailer, yet most also felt they didn't need to learn critical safety basics, such as the proper way to drive with a trailer or distribute trailer loads. Nearly three-quarters of all drivers said they learned to tow by trial and error.

So where do you go to learn how to pull a load? Fortunately, there's no shortage of towing information out there if you know where to look, including guidebooks, online tutorials and even seminars hosted by trailering organizations around the country (see "Towing Resources," right). Here are just some of the top towing tips recommended by these sources.

Proper Setup

A walk-around inspection of your vehicle and attached trailer should be done before every trip. Items to check include the vehicle hitch, trailer attachment points and safety chains, operation of lights and brake controls, inflation pressure of all tires, trailer load distribution, tarp covers, and tie-downs.

Check your vehicle and trailer owner's manuals for recommended towing capacities, and ensure that both vehicles comply with requirements for equipment such as trailer brake controls and side- and rear-view mirrors. Also be aware of local restrictions on trailer height, width, and weight, as well as any special permits that may be needed for certain types of trailers and their cargo. Exceeding or ignoring these regs not only results in unsafe operation, it could void your insurance and vehicle warranties, and violate state or federal laws.

Trailer weight and load distribution are often overlooked by users, but they are primary factors when accidents occur. Most manufacturers provide specs for recommended gross trailer weights (GTW) that should not be exceeded. Owners can weigh loaded trailers at highway truck stops or trucking facilities and can test tongue weights (no more than 10 to 15 percent of GTW) of lighter trailers using a household bathroom scale.

Loads should be distributed evenly side-to-side with the heaviest items at bottom and about 60 percent of the total weight forward of the trailer axle. Use straps or tie-downs to prevent items from shifting during travel.