Your complete guide to roof-rack safety

Man positions bikes beside roof-box on roof of car.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 12 April 2021

Loose items on your roof rack can have serious consequences. Get roof rack and loading safety tips from our Safe Driving for Life experts.

Here on the Safe Driving for Life blog, we make it our business to pass on to you the best in safe driving advice. Most of it comes from our subject experts, but just occasionally we publish posts that are inspired by real-life events. This post was definitely inspired by real events and we thought it was so important to tell you that we immediately scurried away to write it up.

A racking tale ...

Picture a fast-moving road. It could be a motorway, or it could be a dual carriageway; it does not really matter. You’re driving well within the speed limit and keeping a 2-second gap between your vehicle and the car in front.

As far as you can see, the driver in front is also doing everything they should to stay safe on the roads. There’s just one difference: their car has a roof rack and it seems to you that the items attached to it are wobbling as though they’re ready to roll off onto the road.

Rack and roll

You consider the situation, then you flash the other driver to let them know that you think there’s a problem, but they do not seem to notice. In another quarter of a mile, you come off at a slip road to stop at the motorway services. Bearing in mind all of our good advice about taking regular refreshment breaks on a long journey, you grab yourself a sandwich and a bottle of water, then return to your car and switch on the radio.

You’ve just pressed the button when the traffic reporter tells you that there’s been an incident involving a ‘car dropping its load’ onto the road you were travelling on and the carriageway is closed. You‘re pretty sure it’s the driver you saw just 15 minutes before and decide to take another route to your destination. Lucky escape!

This is what happened to one of our team just a few days ago. His good timing meant he avoided being held up, or worse, by the reported incident. It goes without saying that it was a very dangerous situation for both the driver with the unsecured load and other road users. So, if you’re going places and carrying additional luggage on your roof, just how can you make sure you arrive with everything accounted for?

Here’s our simple guide to roof-rack success

  • First, before you even consider using a roof rack, have a look at the boot of your car. There may be items already in there that you can take out and throw in the garage before you load up. If you can create additional space, then do so; you may not need the roof rack for this trip.
  • At the same time, do not overload the boot. If things are starting to pile up, you might be left with a situation where your view from the rear-view mirror is blocked by your luggage. Avoid this situation at all costs!
  • If you do need the roof rack, then you should weigh everything you want to pack before you start loading up. Your car will have a maximum-permitted roof load; if you do not know what it is, then look in your vehicle handbook. Oh, and do not forget to add the weight of the roof rack to your calculations too.
  • Do not load your roof with lots of heavy items … anything heavy is better stored in your boot. But remember: your vehicle will also have a maximum-permitted axle weight. So, again, be careful about what you’re planning to take with you.
  • If you’ve never used a roof rack before, then read the instructions before you fit it. A badly fitted, badly secured rack is likely to damage your car and may come loose while you’re driving.
  • Make sure that you inspect your roof rack before use. The rack is out in all weathers and, over time, it may start to get rusty. To prevent this from happening, carefully check it and rub some copper grease onto the mounts before you set off.
  • Make loading the roof rack as easy as you can. If you’re trying to load something bulky, like a bike, then get someone to give you a hand. If you do not, you may end up scratching your car’s paintwork!
  • Secure, secure, secure! Follow the instructions in the manual that came with your rack and make sure that everything you attach is tied down as securely as possible. This is particularly true of canoes and surfboards. While these things are fun when you get them to the water, they can be lifted up by the airstream over your car when you‘re travelling at speed. Not so much fun. Be sure to attach them to the front and back of your car (tow bars can work well) to make them extra safe.
  • If you’re travelling quite a distance, stop regularly to check that all your ropes, fixings and ties are still in place. It might seem like a bind (sorry!), but if you make the checks when you stop for comfort breaks, they just become part of the driving routine.
  • Make sure that your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure for the load your vehicle is carrying. You can find details of the ‘laden weight’ tyre pressures in your vehicle handbook. Oh, and with that extra weight, it’s going to take you a bit longer to slow down. So make sure you keep a safe distance between your vehicle and the one in front.

Follow all that and you should be well on the way to trouble-free travel with your roof rack. No more hours spent wracked with worry … (The puns are not getting any better, are they?)

On a different rack ...

If you’ve enjoyed this guide to roof-rack safety and you’re hungry for more top tips, then visit the Safe Driving for Life shop and check out our range of official DVSA publications.

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