Boat-trailer decouplings that lead to deaths and criminal prosecution are so rare that the Boat Trailer Manufacturers Association doesn’t even have statistics about them, says Darren Envall, the group’s assistant executive director. Still, two fatal incidents serve as reminders about the importance of properly securing boats and trailers.
Within a month of a 42-year-old man being sentenced to 60 days in jail for criminally negligent homicide after his boat and trailer broke loose in traffic and killed a woman on Staten Island, New York, police were investigating a fatal trailer decoupling on a highway in Louisiana. The death that led to jail time in New York occurred in 2015 when Michael Khmil was trailering his Trophy behind a Toyota SUV. According to news reports, Khmil had the 4,000-plus-pound boat atop a trailer designed for a 3,000-pound load; had failed to install safety chains connecting the trailer to the vehicle; and had failed to install a braking system on the trailer, despite warning labels.
During rush hour on Hylan Boulevard — a major thoroughfare — Khmil steered the SUV from the right lane to the center lane, the reports state. Two bicyclists were in the right lane. The trailer detached from the vehicle and stayed in the right lane, striking the bicyclists. Alexa Cioffi, 21, was pronounced dead soon afterward at Staten Island University Hospital.
The Louisiana incident occurred in late November 2017 about an hour southeast of Baton Rouge, where multiple news reports say a boat and trailer uncoupled from a Chevy Silverado driven by 20-year-old Jeremiah Allee. The boat, whose make was not immediately reported, and the trailer then crossed a highway’s centerline. They slammed into a delivery truck, killing its 49-year-old driver, David Burvant.
It was unclear whether Allee had followed local trailering regulations, or whether he had used safety chains. “It’s something that’s so rare that you hardly ever, if ever at all, hear of it,” Envall says, talking about the New York incident. “If people follow instructions and make sure the coupling is on the ball, the chains are intact, it’s the right trailer for the job, everything would be fine.”
Kendra Ansley, executive director of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, says that not just following instructions, but also knowing a trailer’s details and local laws are key to safe boat trailering. However, she adds, knowing all of that information is sometimes easier said than done.
Laws vary from state to state about whether safety chains must be used, and how many chains. Laws also differ among states about whether trailers need to have brakes, how many and what color lights a trailer must have, and how long and wide trailers can be. In addition, there’s safety information that comes with the make and model of the trailer, along with the make and model of the boat. Those details, which reputable boat dealers provide, typically include the total weight that can be towed on the trailer, as opposed to the weight of the boat itself.
“A lot of times, people don’t understand what the trailer is capable of towing,” Ansley says. “When the boat and trailer come together as a package, then typically the trailer is meant for that boat. But if they fill up the boat with things they want to take to the [water] and then try to tow it, they may be overloading the trailer.”
To help owners determine the best practices, the BTMA suggests a publication titled “You and Your Boat Trailer,” produced by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. It explains everything from calculating total weight and distributing it properly to the basics of trailer hitches, couplings, safety chains, tires and brakes. It also contains sections about trailering tactics and tips, including a notation for saltwater boaters to rinse the trailer with fresh water after every trip, and to give the trailer an annual coat of wax.
“Couplers are generally tested to a standard that will haul whatever is meant to be hauled,” Ansley says. “As long as they’re being maintained properly, they shouldn’t break. But people leave their trailers outside. They get rained on and rust. They enter the water and come back out, which means the salt water can start to break things down.”
Ansley urges boaters to think about trailer safety from the day they buy their trailer. Regulations haven’t changed much in recent years, she says, but both the NATM and the NMMA have programs that send inspectors to manufacturing facilities to ensure that trailers are being built to existing requirements. Shoppers can look for the NATM or NMMA decals — or both — to make sure they’re starting with a well-made trailer.
Ansley also suggests reviewing AAA’s online listings of state-by-state requirements for trailer lighting, towing, dimensions and brakes. Those lists are at drivinglaws.aaa.com and exchange.aaa.com. They’re searchable for free.
Information in the listings includes the fact that Ohio does not require brakes on all trailer axles, though neighboring Pennsylvania does, and that in New York, where the cyclist was killed, at least one safety chain from the trailer to the vehicle is required.
And no matter the law, Ansley says, two chains are better than one. “You’re actually supposed to crisscross them underneath the coupler, with enough slack that you can turn your vehicle without them dragging on the ground,” she says. “When the coupler breaks, it will fall; the safety chains are crossed to catch that piece so that it doesn’t fall to the ground.”
Properly securing a trailer can prevent a lot of damage, she says, as well as tragedies. “Theoretically, it shouldn’t happen that often because consumers should be using safety chains,” she says. “That’s why they’re there, in case the coupling unit breaks. The safety chains keep the trailer connected to the vehicle.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.