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Highway hazards: Beware the trailer in the next lane

As the advanced technology in modern cars escalates at breathtaking pace, we can now have cars that warn you to take a break, regain control for you if you slide, ping when you drift out of your lane, ding if you're too close to the car ahead, and brake for you if you ignore the dinging. Modern marvels, and even more features being invented before I finish writing this.

What's missing? A warning about the junk about to fly off the homemade trailer in the next lane.

'Tis the season to schlep. Do we throw it out, or take it to the cottage? We have to take the trailer, because if we actually use our seven-seater for seven bodies, all anyone can bring is a toothbrush and a change of underwear. Bungee cords will definitely keep that barbecue in the trailer; it's way too heavy to move. Just tuck the tarp down tight; it won't come undone. Wow, isn't it awesome what you can rig up with an old axle, some plywood and a couple of reflectors?

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Homemade trailers do have to be registered and plated, and they're supposed to have proper wiring harnesses and hitches. Nice theory, but they aren't required to be inspected under Ontario law. Ajay Woozageer of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation confirms this, noting it is up to owners to ensure its safe operating condition. Failure to do so can result in charges under the Highway Traffic Act.

So this wording must be strong enough to keep everybody safe on the roads, right? What could go wrong using the honour system? Who needs any more nanny-ing about something as basic as a trailer? Go on to the many forums devoted to telling people how to skirt the law and keep dodgy trailers on the road. Learn to just move a licence plate from one trailer to another. Find out how many trailers have been on the road – unrestricted and frequently unmaintained – for decades.

For many people, trailers are a once-in-a-while need. One load of stuff north, renting some heavy equipment for yard work every few years, hauling renovation debris. We borrow one from an in-law or a neighbour, and it's exactly the sort of thing that should be rented or borrowed if you only need one occasionally. The problem? If you borrow a car and if it's poorly maintained, you'll feel it as you drive, if it starts at all. A trailer is a pretty basic piece of equipment, and looks can be deceiving. But it still has tires and hitches and safety chains and electrical components, and everything needs to be in good working order.

There are weight restrictions for homemade trailers, but seemingly no accountability for how much junk can be crammed into them, unless they're caught by a traffic cop. That's too little, too late as a cooler goes cartwheeling over three lanes of traffic, or the lawn chairs tied down with a skipping rope finally wriggle free.

Spotty trailer laws can cost you in crashes and injury, but also on your insurance tab. Trailer insurance fraud is growing as loopholes are exploited. People properly register a commercial trailer, insure it, declare it stolen (often loaded with ATVs and similar expensive toys), then reregister the same "stolen" trailer as a homemade one. Nobody checks, remember?

According to a report in Canadian Underwriter, a presentation by the Ontario Provincial Police in 2011 featured slide after slide of trailers, all part of more than 400,000 that had been registered as homemade in the previous five years. The problem was, this was a slideshow of commercially made trailers, many enclosed, none homemade.

From the article, OPP Sergeant Stephen Boyd: "We've lost 11,000 already in our jurisdiction [in 2011]," Boyd noted, adding that up to $300,000 to $400,000 worth of other property can easily go missing along with the trailer. Remember: these aren't the trailers that are part of big rigs; these are the trailers anyone with a trailer hitch can haul on the road.

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The presentation was made by ISB Canada, the same company that tracks and produces things like Carfax and Carproof reports. As the country's "largest supplier of source documents and retrieval services to the insurance industry," it would make sense that the insurance industry would listen when ISB Canada presents them with these kinds of numbers.

Gino Fiorucci, CEO of ISB Canada, agrees there are problems on the registration and enforcement side of the trailer equation, and OPP Sergeant Pierre Chamberland notes the original program has now been folded into the larger OPP program of Organized Crime Enforcement.

On a more personal level? Fiorucci recalls "once a trailer ahead of me had a drop gate with a rusty latch. It worked free, flew off and just missed my car. I saw the driver pulled over, wondering why his trailer had fallen apart. Another time, one of those big plastic roof containers blew open." There is little more disconcerting than a duffle bag in the middle of a busy highway.

When I used to insure an older car, my insurance company made me come in with photos of it. Why don't insurance companies request a picture of the trailer they are about to insure? Wouldn't that be a cheap and easy step towards ferreting out some of the fraud right there?

From the obvious danger hurtling down the highway ahead of you to the calculated fraud tabs insurance companies are paying out, we're all paying one way or another.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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