Is It Illegal To Exceed Towing Capacity?

Towing can be complicated. Not only must you drive with full concentration to avoid accidents, but you also have to understand all the laws that affect your state. With so many rules and regulations on hand, sometimes you might feel confused about what you can and cannot do when it comes to towing. And, more often than not, you might be tempted to exceed your towing capacity. So, is doing this illegal? Read on to find out.

Is it illegal to exceed towing capacity?

If you’re towing above the allowing towing capacities for your respective license, then you’re breaking the law. But, if you’re exceeding your vehicle’s towing capacity without exceeding your license restraints, then you aren’t breaking the law. Of course, if you get into an accident and put others at risk, then you are breaking the law.

To answer this question in more detail, we need to differentiate between towing capacities. First of all, we must explain that there are several factors to consider and, yes, the law is one of them. Let’s talk about the maximum amount of weight you can tow without the need for a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).

If your vehicle, or combination of vehicles, doesn’t exceed a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,000 pounds and your trailer weighs less than 10,000 pounds, then you do not need a CDL of any class. Your standard driver’s license is enough.

To better understand what kind of license you need for different weights, you can read the following table:

License ClassWhen you need itExamples of vehicles you can driveCDL Class AYou need a Class A CDL if any combination of vehicles has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds and the towed vehicle weighs more than 10,000 pounds.Tractor-trailers (examples include 18-wheelers and Semis), Tanker Vehicles, Livestock carriers, Flatbeds.
CDL Class BYou need a Class B CDL when you’re operating any single vehicle that isn’t hitched to a trailer (CMW that an attached cargo and cab) with a GVWR greater than 26,000 pounds, as well as trucks with a detached towed cargo vehicle weighing less than 10,000 poundsLarge buses, such as city buses, school buses and tourist buses. Segmented buses, box trucks, Straight trucks, dump trucks with small trailers.
CDL Class CYou need a Class C CDL when you’re operating a single vehicle with a GVWR of less than 26,001 pounds, or a vehicle towing another vehicle that weighs less than 10,000 pounds or transports 16 or more passengers.Double/Triple Trailers, Buses, Tank Trucks, Hazmat or other special vehicles.

So, this is the first answer to the question. If you are towing anything above 26,000 pounds of GVWR, or your trailer weighs more than 10,000 pounds, and you don’t have a CDL, then it’s illegal to exceed this towing capacity.

Remember that many trucks out there can exceed these numbers, as we’ve written before. The 2020 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty and the 2020 Chevrolet Silverado can both tow up to 35,500 pounds, but you need a CDL if you plan to do so.

But what happens if you’re exceeding your truck’s towing capabilities, but you’re still below the requirements for a CDL? Let’s find out.

Exceeding the manufacturer’s suggested towing capacity can be illegal.

Exceeding the manufacturer’s suggested towing capacity could not only damage your vehicle but could, depending on the situation, expose you to civil liability. Let’s dive deeper into this topic since it’s imperative to understand the possible consequences of pulling more than your truck can handle.

First, let’s talk about the consequences of exceeding your vehicle’s towing capabilities. All trucks are rated for maximum pulling capacity.

The manufacturer defines this rating by all the mechanical components within the vehicle; the company takes aspects like the transmission, brakes, suspension, and cooling into consideration when determining the suggested towing weight.

When you exceed this towing capacity, you’re putting your vehicle under more strain. Brakes will have a more challenging time stopping the car. Transmissions can overheat, especially automatic versions and the extra weight can alter the ride and handling. So, in general, your vehicle is more unsafe.

If for these reasons, you end up in an accident and you injure others or damage property, you can fall into the realm of civil liability. Let’s use an example.

Let’s say you’re driving on the highway and pulling more than what the manufacturer has suggested. Then, suddenly, a car pulls into your lane of travel, giving you very little time to react. You take evasive actions, but since your truck exceeds towing capacity and handling is compromised, an accident occurs. If authorities find that exceeding the towing capacity is causally related to this incident, you could be found liable through a legal process.

There’s another example that we can use that’s even more precise, and it involves the hitch.

Imagine you’re towing something that’s within your manufacturer’s towing suggestion, but it exceeds the maximum weight the hitch can hold. As you’re cruising on the highway, you’re forced to accelerate suddenly, and the joint snaps.

The trailer rolls out of control and crashes into another vehicle. Again, what authorities will be looking for is causality. If they investigate and find that the weight exceeded the hitch’s suggested maximum weight, then you might be liable.

There are some alternatives to safely increase your truck’s towing capabilities. Usually, they come from the manufacturer or any OEM provider. If you want to know more about improving your vehicle’s pulling power, you can read our article on the topic.

So, as we have explained, the best way to avoid any accidents and legal consequences are by staying within the manufacturer’s recommendations for towing. If you’re new to towing, it’s best to understand some essential terms.

Important terms to know for safe towing:

In this article, we’ve mentioned the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), and it’s important because it’s the maximum pounds your vehicle or vehicles can weigh, according to the manufacturer. Any weight above that can be dangerous for you and others on the street.

Plus, if the GVWR of your vehicle or combination of vehicles exceeds 26,000 pounds, you need a CDL, and it is illegal to drive in these conditions without one.

But, remember that the trailer weight is also essential. That’s why you need to consider the Gross Trailer Vehicle Weight Rating (GTWR) and make sure that it doesn’t exceed 10,000 pounds.

Here’s a summary of practical terms for towing within the legal limits:

  • Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by class. It’s the vehicle’s maximum total weight.
  • Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by class. It’s the recommended maximum loaded weight of your vehicle and your trailer.
  • Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW): usually expressed in pounds. It’s your vehicle’s weight, alone, without the trailer, when fully loaded.
  • Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR): usually expressed in pounds or separated by class. The maximum recommended weight for a fully loaded trailer. This number is the maximum towing capacity.
  • Tongue Weight (TW): usually expressed in pounds. This is the maximum weight that can be exerted onto the back of the vehicle. It concerns the hitching point between the trailer and the truck. It’s an essential value for stability. If authorities find that this weight exceeds that of the hitch, you can be found liable in the event of an accident.

As we’ve written before, you can tow pretty much anything you want, including cars. But you must do it safely.

And, since you might be thinking about it, yes, you can get into trouble if you exceed the towing capacity just once, especially if you’re venturing into CDL territory. There are some exceptions, such as CDL permissions for farmers, but they are specific to every state and depend on the individual’s conditions.

Closing thoughts:

This article wanted to answer whether it is illegal to exceed towing capacity. The answer isn’t straightforward. In fact, we covered several scenarios, some of which include Federal laws and regulations.

It is illegal to exceed the towing capacity that your license allows. If you are driving past the famous 26,000-pound limit, or your trailer weighs more than 10,000 pounds, and you don’t have a CDL, then you’re breaking the law. While this scenario might seem obvious, the CDL requirements might be confusing, so we have added a table for you to understand them better.

Then, we also aimed to answer what happens in different situations. One example that we gave you in this article is when you exceed your manufacturer’s suggested towing weight or any of the variables mentioned above, such as the GVWR or the GTWR. If by going above these ratings, you cause an accident, then you might be liable.

Finally, we spoke about the possible consequences of exceeding the hitch weight. If you exceed this value and the trailer snaps in the middle of the road and causes injuries or damages, you might be liable.

As you can see, towing within the law and local regulations involves a lot of variables. The best way to pull safely is to respect the manufacturer’s maximum ratings, your local rules, and state regulations, and read articles like this one that gives you the information you need.

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One Comment

  1. My understanding is that the 10000 pound trailer weight limit does not apply to RV trailers. Generally speaking, all 5th wheel RV trailers have a gross weight rating more than 10k pounds. And of the 30 plus we looked at while shopping, only one 33 footer had an empty weight under that limit.