Although the regulations for a commercial tractor-trailer are far stricter than the ones that apply to the trailers those of us without a CDL tow behind the family SUV or pickup, it’s not just truck drivers and 18-wheelers getting ticketed for violations. These days, nearly anyone who fastens a trailer to their trailer hitchcould find themselves getting ticketed when they least expect it. Construction workers, landscapers, farmers, ranchers, outdoorsman and sportsmen, and even the industrious Do-It-Yourselfer might see those flashing lights in their rearview mirror from time to time and be surprised to find their trailer is out of compliance.
Purchasing a registered trailer from a reputable manufacturer is the first step to avoiding that sinking feeling you’re sure to experience while looking for a safe spot to pull that 16-foot trailer out of oncoming traffic so the officer can come ask for your license and registration.


Of course, making sure that all your equipment is in working order is the second step. For example, it doesn’t make sense to have a breakaway kit with a dead battery, or have a trailer wrapped in fancy LED markers and clearance lights when your wiring harness has an electrical short or burned out lamp, or to use an insufficient trailer hitch. Not only does it not make sense to go against these common-sense rules, but you would be breaking the law in most states by towing a trailer down the road in that condition.

Even if your trailer is registered and you’ve performed an inspection before pulling the wheel chocks and backing it out of the carport, you still might be in for a surprise. Regulations are known to change from year to year. So, although you might get pulled over for exceeding the maximum towing speed, on his walk up to your window, that State Trooper may have just seen a few things that the trailer you purchased in 2001 doesn’t have, but should have, according to the law.
If your equipment is in good working order and the uniformed guy with the clipboard is in a good mood, the reality is you’re a likely to get off with just a warning for most trailer violations – especially if you can demonstrate that the trailer was in compliance when purchased. What makes regulations particularly confusing, however, is how they are written, and the fact that they tend to vary from state to state. In fact, even neighboring states can have different regulations.
If you plan to cross state lines with your trailer, you should check into the various states’ Department of Transportation websites and become familiar with their regulations. Be warned though; these documents are not light reading, and it might help if you have a background in law. For example, the Federal Regulations from the Motor Carrier Safety Administration are divided into thousands of sections, subsections, and parts, and it isn’t uncommon for some sections to reference other parts, other parts to reference some sections, sections to reference subsections of other parts, and all combinations in between. You get the idea – it can be pretty confusing. Before you know it, you’ve read 15 paragraphs spread out over 20 pages just to find out if brakes are required in Arizona.
Again, what might surprise some trailer owners are the several cases where a trailer can be legal in one state, but just by crossing a state line, it becomes illegal. The most common infractions are for braking and speed issues, but the differences can be marginal. For example, when traveling from Tennessee to Kentucky or Mississippi to Alabama, a tower can find that he or she has exceeded the maximum towing speed by 10 mph, or that brakes are suddenly required because the load is 1,500 pounds too heavy, or the trailer is 1/2” too wide. The regulations really can change that much between states, depending on where you’ll be traveling. Of course, it’s doubtful that motorists would be ticketed for being 1/2” out of compliance, but the law is the law, and it’s the trailer owner’s responsibility to know the law.
We sorted through all the mess and we think we have a surefire way for you to perform a 48-state tour of the United States and never break a trailer violation. But first, please be aware of something all the regulations and recommendations seem to all include: taillights, brake lights, clearance lights, turn signals, reflectors / conspicuity tape, a license plate light, safety chains, brakes (on any axle with a capacity over 3.5K lbs.), and a working breakaway kit for any trailer equipped with brakes are always required. Quality trailer parts suppliers like can be easily found online to make sure you use DOT compliant repair and replacement parts.
So how can you prepare to travel the nation without worrying about the various regulations? Well, a trailer that is legal in the lower United States is a trailer no higher than 13’, no longer than 30’, and no wider than 8’. Thanks to Maryland’s rules, the combined length of the tow vehicle and trailer cannot exceed 55’, but in Wyoming, you can be a freight train at 85’ (and to think…we thought everything was bigger in Texas!)
Now, throw signal flares and a fire extinguisher into a tool box and you’re almost ready to hit the road. Make sure you do not have passengers in a towable trailer such as 5th Wheel or travel camper, and don’t go faster than 55 mph. However, you can put your foot to floor and open it up to 75 mph in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, and – apparently, the place to move you if you own a trailer – Wyoming.
Now get out there and enjoy the open road, and if you need parts or supplies, you know where to turn:

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