How to tow a broken-down car

Carlton Boyce / 04 November 2015 ( 21 December 2016 )

If you’ve got breakdown cover, you’re unlikely to ever need to tow your own car if it breaks down. However, there might still be occasions when you need to tow a car and it’s a useful skill to have anyway, just in case…



The basics

  • You can only tow a car with a manual gearbox. If it’s an automatic, then I’m afraid you’ll have to have it professionally recovered.

  • The towing capacity of the car doing the pulling must be sufficient. So, if your friend has broken down in his Land Rover Discovery and you drive a Smart car, he’ll have to ask someone else…

  • You can use a rope or a chain to tow a car but the best solution is a special towing strap. They generally have a heavy duty hook at each end, so are easy to connect to each car, and will have been tested and certified to pull a specific weight, unlike that tatty old bit of rope you’ve found hanging up in your garage!

  • You should put an ‘On Tow’ sign on the back of the car that is being towed.

Do you know about these eight laws that affect motorists?

The legalities

  • The person controlling the broken down vehicle must be a qualified driver for that class of vehicle.

  • Newly qualified drivers (generally those who have passed their driving test since 1st January 1997) who haven’t taken a specific towing test are limited in what they can tow. However, the law does give one exemption:

An exemption from the driver licensing trailer limit allows a category B licence holder to tow a broken down vehicle from a position where it would otherwise cause danger or obstruction to other road users, to a point of safety.

This means they could tow a broken down vehicle to a safe place, but would be breaking the law if they continued towing it after that point, ie, they can’t tow it all the way home.

  • The broken down vehicle must have a current MOT (if applicable), and be taxed and insured, as the law considers that it is still being driven.

  • If you are using a rope, strap or chain, the distance between the vehicles cannot exceed 4.5 metres (14’ 9”).

  • If the distance between the two vehicles is greater than 1.5 metres (5’), then the rope, strap or chain must be clearly visible to other road users. This is most easily done by tying a piece of brightly coloured cloth in the middle of the rope or chain.

  • If you are towing at night then the towed vehicle must have its lights switched on, or be fitted with auxiliary lights that replicate the car’s original equipment.

Read our guide to what to do if you break down

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The practicalities

  • Accelerate gently to take up the slack in the rope, strap or chain and take it slowly once you are moving.

  • Keep the journey as short as possible.

  • The towing car should indicate in plenty of time to give the driver of the car being towed plenty of time to react.

  • Remember to take sharp bends wide to avoid the rope, strap or chain cutting across the verge or pavement.

  • The driver doing the towing should illuminate the towing car’s brake lights by gently applying the brakes to warn the car behind that he/she is about to brake.

  • The driver of the car being towed should try and keep the rope, strap or chain taut at all times.

  • Agree a set of signals so you can communicate between the two cars.

Have you heard about the 'crash for cash' scam? Find out more...

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Carlton Boyce If you enjoy Carlton's inimitable style of writing, you'll love his motoring column - to have each one delivered straight to your door every month, subscribe to Saga Magazine today!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.