LAST UPDATED: April 1, 2020
Best Towed Vehicle Braking System: Don’t Compromise on Safety
Stay safe and road-legal with our top towed vehicle braking systems
The Review Team
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PUBLISHED ON April 1, 2020
All but 10 U.S. states require any towed vehicle to have a supplemental braking system. In every state but one, the law orders that any vehicle is able to stop within a certain distance. For your own safety, and to obey the law, any vehicle you tow behind your motorhome should have its own braking system.
These towed vehicle braking systems will prevent strain on your primary brakes, reduce your stopping distance, and ensure your whole adventure is highway-safe. Read on for our ultimate guide to toad brakes so you can choose the right one for your vehicle.
A progressive braking system that can be installed out of sight and works in towed vehicles with vacuum brakes.
Convenient, one-time installation. Drip-charges your tow battery as you drive. Operates safely in all road conditions and elevations.
This proportional brake system applies to stop power in sync with your towing vehicle’s brakes. It requires compressed air brakes to work.
Easily affordable, yet still perfectly capable of handling short stopping distances and adverse conditions. Relatively simple installation.
Universal braking system that works in all vehicles. Fully electric, with a lifetime battery included. Monitors brake pressure while towing.
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Benefits of a Towed Vehicle Braking System
- Safety. Without a braking system installed in your towed vehicle, you’re relying on your primary brakes to stop your entire rig. This can more than double your stopping distance, especially on inclines or in slick weather conditions. Adding another system to take some of the load helps you maintain more control over your vehicle.
- Protect your brakes. In addition to wreaking havoc on your stopping distance, towing a vehicle that doesn’t have a braking system will put intense strain on your vehicle’s brakes. This will cause the pads to wear through sooner, and need to be replaced more often.
- Follow the law. Check your state’s regulations: Vehicles towing a certain weight (most commonly 3,000 pounds) are almost always required to have a brake installed. Remember, you’ve got to follow the laws of any state you’re driving through, and your toad is required to activate its brake lights when the primary vehicle does.
Types of Towed Vehicle Braking Systems
A proportional braking system includes a device that monitors your primary brakes. This is usually either an accelerometer to measure acceleration/deceleration, or a sensor to watch how much pressure is being applied. The braking system then applies a proportional amount of pressure to the towed vehicle, so they’re both braking with the exact same intensity.
Unlike a proportional brake, a progressive brake doesn’t adjust pressure up and down. Instead, once the towed vehicle registers that the towing vehicle’s brakes have been applied, it starts applying the toad’s brakes with increasing pressure. Pressure will keep increasing as long as the main vehicle’s brake pedal is depressed, though it cuts out at a certain point to protect the towed vehicle’s brakes.
Direct braking systems are wired directly to your main vehicle’s brakes. It won’t be matching the proportion of your vehicle’s brakes—it will be your vehicle’s brakes. Any pressure applied to your primary brake pedal will be applied 1:1 to the towed vehicle. While direct braking systems are extremely accurate, they’re also the hardest to install, usually requiring mechanical expertise.
Roadmaster was founded in 1970 and has been building aftermarket towing products for 50 years now. They pride themselves on manufacturing all their parts at their plant in Vancouver, Washington. Some of its best-known braking systems include the BrakeMaster and the Invisibrake.
Blue Ox was purchased by Automatic Equipment in 1991, and since then has been a major player in the aftermarket towing industry. In addition to braking systems, the company manufactures tow bars, hitches, and carriers. Its products include the Patriot line of brake systems and the Apollo tow bar.
Demco is a 70-year-old motor accessory company that started out building agricultural products. Since then, the company has diversified into recreational vehicles and produces brake systems like the Air Force One, Stay-In-Play Duo, and Delta Force.
Towed Vehicle Braking System Pricing
- Under $20: This is the range for cheap accessories, such as wiring kits, breakaway switches, and mounting aids.
- $20 to $100: In this range, you’ll find digital controllers for towed vehicles that already have built-in brake systems. You’ll also find better-constructed brand-name accessories.
- $100 to $400: This range includes items designed to work with towed vehicle braking systems, such as breakaway systems for Brakemasters, and replacement wires for Blue Ox or Demco models.
- Over $400: Almost all new braking systems for towed vehicles will fall into this range.
A braking system for a towed vehicle can’t do its job without some kind of hookup to the towing vehicle. Normally, this will involve connecting a few wires to ports in each vehicle before driving. The toad’s braking system uses this connection to monitor what’s happening in the driving vehicle’s brakes, and react accordingly.
There should also be some sort of mechanism governing that reaction. Toad brakes should always be prepared to provide a large amount of stopping power if needed, so they’re able to increase braking pressure on their own without driver input—and decrease it as well, to avoid straining the toad’s brakes.
An important feature of towed vehicle braking systems is the ability to monitor how they’re working while driving the primary vehicle using a dashboard alert or other sign. RVers should know at all times whether your toad’s brakes are active, and how much pressure they’re applying. They should also connect to your tow vehicle’s brake lights.
- Portable vs. Non-Portable. This is the major division in braking systems for towed vehicles. Non-portable systems like the Demco Air Force One are installed in one vehicle, and cannot be taken out and reused. Portable systems can be uninstalled and reinstalled in new vehicles. Portable braking systems like Brake Buddy are faster and easier to install, but you have to reinstall them every time you start driving.
- Compressed Air vs. Hydraulic Brakes. Towed vehicle braking systems are not universal. Some require access to compressed air, which usually powers the brakes of larger, heavier vehicles. When searching for one, check to see that it works with the type of brakes built into the vehicle you’ll be towing with.
Best Towed Vehicle Braking System Reviews & Recommendations 2020
Roadmaster’s 8700 Invisibrake is a powerful braking system that is completely invisible once installed in your vehicle. Installation can be time-consuming, and requires a bit more than a layperson’s mechanical knowledge, but there are plenty of YouTube videos to help you figure it out. You can also have it done by your mechanic.
Once it’s in there, you’ll never have to remove it. Unhooking is as simple as removing the tow bar, giving you more time to look around on your stops. The Invisibrake also charges your tow’s battery, unlike some other systems that drain it until it’s dead.
Other than the complicated installation, the main drawback of the Roadmaster 8700 Invisibrake is that it can sometimes cause wiring issues that lead to dashboard lights failing to turn on or off, especially on four-wheel drive vehicles. It’s also been occasionally known to ship without necessary parts.
Another product from Roadmaster, the 9160 Brakemaster is a proportional brake system that works with vehicles that have air brakes (not hydraulics). It senses how much braking power your tow vehicle is currently applying, and tries to match it, with the result that you barely feel the tow dragging at all.
That’s a great comfort, but we also love that this is a relatively cheap option that’s also not difficult to install. Some parts, like the emergency brake reservoir, can cause headaches, but you shouldn’t need to go to a garage for this. And despite the low price, the 9160 Brakemaster helps you maintain an excellent stopping distance.
While we like almost everything about this braking system, we want to note that problems with it can be expensive: Leaks almost always require a trained mechanic to fix, and cylinder failures can be unserviceable, requiring you to replace the whole unit.
Blue Ox’s Patriot 3 has the honor of being the only towed vehicle braking system that works in all vehicles, including hybrids and all-electrics. It’s extremely easy to install. The one slightly difficult step is hooking up the breakaway switch, but the instructions are clear, and you only have to do it once.
The Patriot 3 monitors your brake pressure and continuously adjusts as you drive, which makes using it feel simple and smooth. Its system is entirely electric, and the installed capacitor should be the only battery it ever needs.
If there are any downsides, other than this being one of the most expensive systems on the market, it’s that installation is so easy that it’s possible to miss steps that cause the installed brakes to not respond. Make sure to double-check and test your brakes before you start long-distance towing.
- The words “towed vehicle,” “toad,” and “dinghy” all mean the same thing—a working vehicle being towed behind another one.
- Don’t flat-tow a vehicle if it’s not functional on its own. The supplemental braking system requires the toad to be in good working order.
- If your state doesn’t have a supplemental brake requirement, don’t assume you’re off the hook. You might still be required to maintain a certain stopping distance, which almost always requires a toad braking system anyway.
Q: What states require braking systems for towed vehicles?
A: Forty states and D.C. specify weight limits above which a towed vehicle has to have a supplemental braking system. Three states (ND, PA, and NJ) require braking systems no matter what, and another six (NH, KY, KS, UT, WY, and OR) require a certain stopping distance.
Q: How are towing weight limits determined?
A: Legal limits almost always measure the weight of the vehicle being towed, irrespective of the size of the one doing the towing. Even if you’re using a motorhome to tow, it’s the size of the toad that counts.
Q: What are the advantages of a non-portable brake system?
A: If your towed vehicle brake system is non-portable or permanent, you’ll only have to install it once. It can take more specialized knowledge, but it saves you a ton of time on each drive—unlike a Brake Buddy or other portable system, which you’ll have to reinstall every time.
The Roadmaster 8700 Invisibrake Hidden Power Braking System is our top choice for a towed vehicle braking system. It’s tricky to install, but more than worth it.
For better value, go with the Roadmaster 9160 Brakemaster Towed Car Braking System, which is easy to use and has strong stopping power.