Towing the line: A guide to the law governing the towing of trailers by vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes

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By Eamonn Brennan, van information manager, Freight Transport Association (FTA)

For many fleet operators, the subject of towing and the laws that govern it cause a great deal of confusion, despite the legislative restrictions being relatively straightforward.

The important thing to remember is that they are designed with one simple objective – the safety of the driver and other road users.

Basically, when a trailer is attached to your vehicle, the combination can come within the scope of additional rules. The main factors to consider are:

  • Driver licensing – the driver may need an additional entitlement on their licence
  • Drivers’ hours – the trailer may bring you into scope of additional rules
  • Operator licensing – the vehicle combination may fall within the scope of these rules
  • Speed limits – vehicles towing trailers have lower speed limits imposed

What category of driving licence is needed?

The first thing you need to do is to ensure the driver holds the correct driving licence; it is important for fleet managers to check their drivers’ licences regularly to ensure the required licence is held and valid.

Due to the introduction of successive European Directives on driver licensing, the rules which govern the ability to drive a vehicle and trailer combination can be complex.

Since 1990, there have been two significant changes to the rules concerning licences with the introduction of the second EU Directive in January 1997 and the third EU Directive on January 19, 2013.

Driving licences issued from 1990 use the following categories for small vehicles and trailers:

B - Vehicle with gross weight up to (and including) 3.5 tonnes and a trailer up to 750kg maximum authorised mass (MAM). Also allows the towing of a trailer over 750kg MAM provided both of the following conditions are met:

  • The sum of the vehicle MAM and trailer MAM does not exceed 3.5 tonnes.
  • The sum of the trailer does not exceed the unladen weight of the drawing vehicles.

B+E - Combination of a vehicle in category B and a trailer over 750kg gross weight.
A driving test taken before January 1, 1997, would normally have category B and B+E on the licence.

A licence for a car test taken on or after that date will have category B – to gain B+E the driver will need to take and pass an additional test.

Due to a limit placed on newly-acquired B+E entitlement holders implemented by the third EU Directive, any driver gaining a B+E entitlement after January 19, 2013, will be limited to a trailer of no more than 3,500kg MAM.

Which drivers’ hours rules apply?

There is a misconception that driving a vehicle at or below 3,500kg gross vehicle weight is not subject to any drivers hours restrictions at all. This is not the case. The driver will be subject to one set of rules depending on the transport activity at the time.

Further guidance on both sets of rules is as follows:

GB Domestic drivers’ hours rules

The GB Domestic drivers’ hours rules apply to drivers on journeys within the UK who are exempt or excluded from the EU tachograph rules. It is not strictly speaking possible to ‘opt’ for compliance with the EU rules if an exemption applies, although a tachograph may be used as an alternative method of record keeping.

In any working day (24hrs from the start of a period of work/driving) a driver subject to GB Domestic drivers’ hours rules will be restricted to a maximum of 10 hours daily driving and an 11-hour daily duty limit (excluding rest and breaks).

However, drivers of goods vehicles not more than 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight and dual-purpose vehicles engaged in a service of inspection, cleaning, maintenance, repair, installation and fitting are exempt from the 11-hour daily duty limit.

In addition, drivers that do not drive for more than four hours on every day of a fixed week (commencing midnight Sunday/Monday) are also exempt from the duty limit. But if they drive for more than four hours on any day in that fixed week, the limit applies for every driving day in that week.

The rules do not apply to:

  • Drivers of vehicles used by the armed forces, police and fire brigades.
  • Drivers who always drive off the public road.
  • Private driving unconnected with any employment.

EU hours rules

EU rules apply to the ‘carriage by road’ of goods where the vehicle/combination exceeds 3.5 tonnes maximum permissible mass.

‘Carriage by road’ means any journey made entirely, or in part, on roads open to the public by a vehicle, whether laden or not, used to carry goods or passengers.

EU rules will apply if the gross combination exceeds 3,500kg gross train weight (gross vehicle weight of towing vehicle plus the maximum authorised mass of the trailer added together). There are a number of exemptions from the tachograph regulations but this is an area that would need to be qualified on a case-by-case basis.


  • Vehicles or combinations of vehicles with a maximum permissible mass not exceeding 7,500kg used for the non-commercial carriage of goods (e.g. moving house, transporting your own personal effects).
  • Vehicles or combinations of vehicles with a maximum permissible mass not exceeding 7,500kg that are used for carrying materials, equipment or machinery for the driver’s use in the course of his/her work and used only within a 50km radius of the base of the undertaking and on condition that driving the vehicle does not constitute the driver’s main activity. This, for example, would apply to tradesmen such as electricians or builders carrying tools or materials for their own use.

A vehicle fitted with a digital tachograph would require the driver to obtain a digital tachograph card if used for commercial purposes to enable the capture of their driving and duty times and ensure compliance with the rules.

A ‘company card’ is also required, which acts as an electronic key and enables the driver to ‘lock in’ the raw data held within the tachograph itself. It allows the data to be accessed for analysis of the drivers’ hours recorded to ensure the rules have not been compromised and to investigate any infringement of the rules.

If the vehicle is driven for non-commercial activities, the digital tachograph unit can be set manually using the menu keys on the display to show ‘out of scope’ and therefore the vehicle combination can be driven without a digital tachograph card. It is vitally important that you comply with the correct set of rules relating to drivers’ hours regulations applicable to your own transport operation as failure to comply with the rules could result in substantial financial penalties or prosecution.

Always seek professional advice from a reputable organisation as this can save a lot of time and money in the future.

Does operator licensing apply?

Operator licensing regulations could affect some fleets depending on whether they are on ‘own account’ operations and whether the trailer being towed is 1,020kg unladen weight. In Great Britain, own-account operators are governed by the conditions laid down under a restricted operator’s licence.

The term ‘hire or reward’ is not specifically defined, but the principle of own-account transport (not being hire or reward), has been established in other European legislation as the carriage of goods where:

  • The goods carried are the property of the undertaking or have been sold, bought, let out on hire or hired, produced, extracted, processed or repaired by it.
  • The purpose of the journey is to carry the goods to or from the undertaking or to move them for its own requirements.
  • Vehicles are driven by personnel employed by, or put
  • at the disposal of, the undertaking under a contractual
  • obligation.
  • The vehicles carrying the goods are owned by the
  • undertaking, have been bought by it on deferred terms or have been hired in line with European legislation.
  • The carriage is no more than ancillary to the overall activities of the undertaking.
  • Currently in Great Britain, small vehicle and trailer drawbar combinations are not in the scope of operator licensing provided the combination’s total gross plated weight does not exceed 3.5 tonnes (or 1,525kg unladen weight where there is no plate). The gross combination weight is calculated by adding together the gross weight of the vehicle and trailer.

If the vehicle combination weight is in excess of 3,500kg and is used for hire and reward operation a Standard National (or Standard International depending on the combination being taken abroad) would be required.

An example of this could be a car transportation business delivering cars to dealers throughout the country and being paid for the delivery of the cars which are owned by the dealerships/manufacturer.

Exemptions from operator licensing:

Exemptions from operator licensing for specialised vehicles and operations include:

  • Dual-purpose vehicles and trailers towed.
  • Vehicles and trailers operating between private premises, which belong to the same person, for no more than six miles per week.
  • Vehicles fitted with permanent equipment, provided the only goods carried are required for use with the equipment or running of the vehicle.
  • Electric vehicles.
  • Water, electricity, gas or telephone vehicles held ready for use in an emergency.
  • Vehicles used for snow clearing or the distribution of grit, salt or other materials on frosted, ice-bound or snow-covered roads and for any other directly connected purpose.

Full clarification should always be sought before an exemption is claimed.

Operator licence regulations can be quite complex and the correct application process can be challenging.

Further information is available within the public domain but, as with drivers’ hours regulations, always seek professional advice prior to using a vehicle/trailer on a public road in connection with a trade or business.

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  • GoodToGoSafety - 27/07/2015 15:50

    It's also worth noting that of the trailer is being used for work purposes it will falll under the requirements of PUWER (The Provision & Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998) and as such the trailer should be regularly inspected to ensure its safe roadworthiness.

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  • chris price - 18/10/2017 10:03

    I own a small cleaning business and am about to complete a purchase of two towable water bowser with pressure washer onboard. I've just been told that I'm not allowed to tow a full bowser on the public highway. Is this true and if so, what would I need to apply for to work round this as I'm sure I've seen other jetting companies run with full bowsers? cheers. Chris

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  • Griff - 10/01/2019 17:42

    I am about to purchase a trailer mounted cherry picker (12m height capability). Do I need a tacograph fitted to the vehicle?

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  • frank yates - 15/03/2019 08:52

    just fitted lights/indicators to a 2000 litre water bowser that is not braked, do i just need to inspect on a regular basis, only local work

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  • Judy - 19/06/2019 10:35

    American Pick Up Truck with trailer exceeding 3,500kg, but listed as a dual-purpose vehicle - do I still need an Operator's Licence??? Used for work transporting vehicles?

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  • Graham Prescott - 20/11/2019 10:13

    I use a landrover discovery and trailer to move hire and lease cars,this service is non chargable so is not for hire or reward. I have heard that there is a new exemption for exactly this, but I cannot find anyone who knows for sure. help!!

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  • Carlo - 17/05/2021 17:27

    Great article Mrr. Eamonn Brennan. I have a small local business in the Hackney - Greater London, UK of towing services . I've seen in the article that there are some ground rules and European Laws for driving on the public road with a car/truck that tows. Now, my question is, since we had the Brexit a couple years ago, are the UK rules and laws admitted in the EU, and vice versa, is my UK driver's license accepted in EU? Wish you all the best. Carlo Hackney Towing

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