What Is a Trailer Breakaway Switch and Do You Need One While Towing?

Unless you use your vehicle to tow often, chances are you know the bare minimum of what your vehicle requires to tow. Generally, you need a tow hitch and a trailer harness that allows you to use brake lights and turn signals. But, if you’re getting into towing more frequently, whether you’re investing in a camper or towing along a boat, you may want to learn more about trailer safety and devices that can improve your towing experience in general, like a trailer breakaway switch.

What is a trailer breakaway switch?

Ford Maverick towing horse box 1997, 2000. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

While it doesn’t require a special license to tow something along behind your car, there is a lot of general safety knowledge that drivers don’t learn before getting their driver’s license. Part of that is what tools you need and what tools are available that can make driving with a trailer safer. One of these mechanisms is called a trailer breakaway switch, though not every trailer may be equipped with one to start, or the mechanisms to even use them.

The concept behind the trailer breakaway switch is rather simple: it tells the trailer to engage the electric brakes on the trailer in case it senses that the trailer has been detached from the vehicle. Ever seen those viral YouTube videos of trails detaching from their vehicle and then scooting along in traffic until they inevitably hit something, like another vehicle? The trailer breakaway switch prevents this by telling the trailer to pump the brakes.

Why would you need something like this?

a vehicle towing
Vehicle towing a caravan | Education Images, Universal Images Group, Getty Images

Even if you are confident that you can hook a trailer up properly, there are still several factors that can play into why a trailer would break away from the vehicle it’s being towed with. Structural failures with the safety chains or even the ball hitch, which are often exposed to harsh elements and can rust with time, can cause your trailer to detach.

Some limitations apply

If you’re wondering whether or not investing a small amount into a trailer breakaway switch is a good idea, there are some limitations to keep in mind. Really, the limitation here is whether or not your trailer itself already has electric brakes. Because the trailer breakaway switch only works to engage the electric brakes, it stands to reason that the system would only actually work if the trailer had electric brakes, to begin with. If you don’t currently own a trailer, or you’re looking to upgrade to a newer one, electric brakes may be something to keep an eye out for when purchasing.

According to NAPA, a trailer breakaway switch seems like a small, underrated safety measure, but in case of emergency it can work to save your precious cargo and protect the vehicles and lives of the people around you. While there are some limitations, if you can install a trailer breakaway switch to your trailer, it is worth looking into.

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