With modern technology, safety equipment and knowledge, towing a caravan has never been safer or easier. However, it's always important to have safety measures in place in the unlikely event of anything going wrong, and fitting a caravan breakaway system is one of the most important and effective precautions any caravan owner can take. However, not every breakaway system is right for every caravan trailer or towing vehicle, so it's important to know what you're getting into before you drop your dollars on equipment.

What is a caravan breakaway system?

Put simply, a breakaway system automatically and instantly applies the brakes if the caravan breaks away from the towing vehicle at speed, for instance if the towing hitch malfunctions. This prevents a free-wheeling caravan from careering into something (or someone) expensive, including your own vehicle when you apply the brakes. A standard breakaway system generally consists of two main components:

The battery box -- This box is compact and generally weighs no more than a few kilos. It contains a large battery, which provides power for braking in a breakaway situation, and suitable wiring and coupling to transmit this power to the axle (this wiring can be fitted yourself or professionally). This wiring will also attach to the breakaway cable. These systems can usually be mounted wherever is most convenient for you, as long as the wiring can reach the brakes; however, older caravans may lack suitable couplings for modern breakaway systems, and may require professional refitting

The breakaway cable -- while some high-end breakaway kits have sensors fitted to detect a breakaway, most breakaway systems still rely on a simple breakaway cable to function properly. These cables are intentionally made quite fragile; this is because they are designed to snap if the caravan breaks away, at which point the automatic brakes are applied. Your cable should be just long enough to stretch from the tow ball to the caravan's towing hitch, without excessive slack. You should also make sure that the carabiners that secure the cable are suitable for your towing arrangement.

What are the legal requirements involved in using a breakaway system?

Many caravans in Australia are legally obliged to have a breakaway system fitted -- the intricate details are contained within Vehicle Standards Bulletin VSB1, but as a general rule, the system you need is dictated by the weight of your caravan:

If your caravan weighs less than 0.75 tonnes gross trailer mass (GTM): You are not legally required to have any kind of braking system fitted to your caravan. Note that this does not apply to caravans with more than one axle, which must abide by the rules of the next weight class.

If your caravan weighs between 0.75 and 2 tonnes GTM: You must have efficient brakes fitted to at least one axle on your caravan, but breakaway systems are not mandatory. Almost all new caravans manufactured to this weight class will have breakaway systems fitted as standard, however, and they are still highly recommended.

If your caravan weighs over 2 tonnes GTM: Breakaway systems are mandatory at this weight class, as well as standard brakes that are directly controllable by the driver of the tow vehicle. Tow vehicles registered in New South Wales must also be fitted with a means of checking the operation of the breakaway system from the driver's position, usually with an electronic readout or warning light.