Aggressive Towing: Why Cities Are Slow to Crackdown on the Problem

Brian O'Connell

Talk to drivers who’ve had to deal with unscrupulous tow truck companies, and you’ll get an earful about ethics, greed and overly aggressive, fear-inducing behavior.

“A few months ago, I hit a pothole on the way back from the airport,” says Rachel Varghese, a branding consultant from the Houston area. “Several miles later, the rear tire started losing air quickly. I moved my car to the shoulder and called AAA.”

Meanwhile, the first of several tow trucks pulled in behind Varghese. The driver insisted the city had a "safe tow" policy that required her to have the car towed immediately. It would cost $60, plus a fee for retrieving the vehicle from its tow destination. 

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“He explained this information to me, while his head was stuck halfway into my car,” Varghese says. “He said it wasn’t safe to stay on the side of the road, and that this is how people get killed.”

Despite explaining she was waiting for AAA, the tow operator insisted "that he was going to tow my car.”

Sound aggressive? Varghese's situation is not isolated.

Exact, statewide figures on companies with the worst towing practices are infrequent and hard to come by, but a 2011 study by Property Casualty Insurers Association of America stated that “while there are many honest, well-intentioned operators, a few bad players have created widespread problems.”

Aggressive towing has become an all too common problem in some major cities where tow company operators tow first, and ask questions later after some fat fees are paid by auto owners.

The PCI found increasing instances of “skyrocketing and inconsistent charges and fees associated with towing and storage.”

Vehicle owners, according to study, also deal with a dizzying array of towing fees, including so-called “helper fees” and “wait time fees.” 

The PCI concluded its study, which named Chicago as the city with the worst tow experiences, by saying that drivers often “felt like their vehicle was being held hostage.”

5 Worst Cities for Aggressive Towing Practices

1. Chicago

2. Philadelphia

3. New York

4. Atlanta

5. Houston

5 Worst States for Aggressive Towing Practices

1. Illinois

2. Pennsylvania

3. New York

4. New Jersey

5. California

The study also looked at the biggest headaches for motorists and insurers when dealing with tow companies.

Topping that list were miscellaneous fees, difficult release process, a lack of transparency and limited access to the vehicle for claims adjusters.

Do tow truck drivers have too much power?

What happened to Varghese is on the list of every driver’s nightmares –- being stranded a dark road and waiting for help -- but your car doesn't have to be disabled to find yourself the victim of an aggressive tow truck driver. You can leave a party, or even finish an errand only to discover your car has been been unfairly towed.

Drivers don’t have much recourse in the eyes of the law. For the most part, towing practices are not regulated by individual states, but rather one enforcement umbrella of the federal government.

That’s been the case for more than 20 years.

The Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 mandates that vehicle towing companies be classified as “interstate carriers,” and thus fell under federal -- not state -- regulatory oversight.

In one fell swoop more than 20 years ago, statewide towing practices were invalidated.

Still, the law hasn't stopped some states and local municipalities from trying to fight back, albeit often unsuccessfully.

California had added a requirement that stated a home or business owner (or designated representative) needed to be on the premises to allow a vehicle tow. A federal appeals court in 2000 later invalidated the rule.

Chicago continues to fight aggressive towing

Some local governments are fighting back, and aren’t waiting any more for help from the federal government.

Chicago recently enacted laws that require tow companies to state beforehand the city streets and lots where they are allowed to tow, and to place video cameras in their vehicles. Drivers would then have access to video if any irregularities arose from a towing.

The city’s new Towing Bill of Rights also mandates that towing firms post signs, provide better clarity on rates, record video or photo images of illegally parked vehicles prior to towing, and leave if the driver arrives with the keys before the vehicle is prepped for towing.

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In the meantime, if you do require a tow (especially for roadside assistance), industry experts advise asking how soon the tow truck can get to you, the total cost of the tow and if the operator has the correct equipment to tow your specific vehicle.

Drivers should expect more cities to follow Chicago's lead, as officials move toward more driver-friendly tow laws that accommodate federal regulations.

As for Varghese on that dark night, she managed to evade an aggressive tow.

When she saw the driver climb back into his truck she relocated her car the best should.

"I started my car and slowly eased my car off the freeway and to a church nearby," she says. "AAA then had to track me down from my original location and sent me off my way with a repaired tire.”

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