Illegal Towing Practices
The following are some of the more common laws that some towing companies violate. We all know that sometimes it seems there are just to many laws, but also we are glad that most of these laws exist because they are protecting us from harm. Our intent here is to educate the general public about illegal practices by some towing companies that can be harmful to the public in general. This information is not to be taken as legal advise as laws change and vary by area. Our area of expertise is southern California. The level of harm to the public can range from wrongfully towed vehicles to uninsured tow drivers and even to crimes against customers physically. At the end of this article will be some tips that can be followed to reduce the risk of exposure to these illegal tow practices.
The most common complaint heard from the public in my experience is “my car was towed without proper cause”, followed by “something was stolen from my car while it was being towed”. Other issues that come up are disputes over damage to a towed vehicle, disputes about price fairness or changes in price after the vehicle was towed. Sometimes people will be approached by a tow driver and they think he is the driver that they called, when in fact he’s not. Storage rates are another area of common dispute. Tow drivers are sometimes not properly licensed to drive the type of tow truck that they are driving. Lets explore these individual issues one at a time and see just what is going on out in the streets.
Starting with the popular issue of vehicles being towed wrongfully we have to say there is some grey area. The laws in California allow for the impounding and removal of illegally parked vehicles on both private and public property. Most of the disputes will arise out of private property impounds such as apartment complex’s, shopping centers, business centers and similar. When parking is difficult to find people get impatient and creative. By law signs are required to notify you of the possibility of impound and towing, but they aren’t required over every space. The California laws are currently not interpreted the same by all. The area of dispute arises on parking lots for the general public.
Some areas are towing vehicles with out waiting the required 1 hour period in a public lot, while others you can get away with parking illegally for 1 hour. Not all areas have the same interpretation of what a public lot is. Many impounds in private lots such as a gated apartment complex come from people thinking they can just run in for a second while parked illegally. Beware, your car can be hooked up and leaving faster than most people can drink a soda. Towing and impound fees are steep, usually starting at around $250. if you follow your car and retrieve it right away. Most apartment complexes require people to list their car plate number on their lease and even a friend you allow to use your spot can be towed. Some companies are overly aggressive and do not follow the laws for impound towing and it can be next to impossible to prove that they violated the law.
The next issue we will discuss is theft of personal property while in the towed vehicle. Any time a vehicle that is unattended by the owner, and several other people have access to it, there stands to be possibility of property theft. The more valuable the items are and the smaller they are the more likely to be stolen. Items that would be common items to disappear might be cameras, cell phones, ipod’s, lap top’s, money, CD’s, and stereo equipment. Not all tow companies have required background and drug testing to reduce the likelihood of theft. Not all tow companies are reputable companies.
Towed vehicle damage is another area consumers can be hurt. Damages to a vehicle can occur when equipment is not properly maintained. Companies that have little regard for the laws that regulate towing equipment will buy chains, cables, and hooks that are not rated as required by law because they are cheaper. Those same type of companies are apt to hire less experienced or poorly qualified drivers and may not have any training programs in place to educate drivers on safe practices.
While there is not much for options when you don’t think the price is fair, know this, it is fraud to tell someone a cost for a service and then change the cost after the consumer is obligated, without proper grounds. Any quality company is going to want your repeat business and will rely on a good reputation and will not practice this type of deceit. Note that there are legitimate reasons for changing the price such as the client failed to inform the tow company of an important fact like the car has no tires. That being said here is the some what unique situation in the towing industry. If the client doesn’t pay for the tow, the tow company can impound the car, and to get it back you would have to pay the original tow plus towing to their impound yard and storage fees. A non reputable tow company might practice quoting low pricing then try to add extras or even flat out dispute what was quoted, then threaten impounding if the client doesn’t comply.
California laws prohibit tow companies from stopping at a stranded motorist situation for the purpose of soliciting business. It is a common practice though for some companies to stop and try to solicit, and even when the motorist advises that they have a truck on the way some will try to offer a better price to get the job. Some drivers have even just not told the motorist that they are not the company that the motorist called. California law provides for penalties against tow drivers who engage in this activity. This activity puts consumers at risk because they have no way to quickly ascertain weather this is a properly licensed, and insured company or not. It is also risky from the stand point of how many tow trucks would be stopping and then pulling back out into traffic if this practice was legal. There is also a level of safety provided to the public by not allowing just any guy in a tow truck to stop and try to sell you on his service. Imagine how intimidated your wife or daughter might be if some big dirty guy stopped and really wanted to get that tow.
Storage rates and payment options as well as hours of operation of storage facilities are mostly governed by law. Of course the laws are for consumer protection but still do allow for free enterprise and the making of a profit. Most people who have their vehicles impounded would say that the rates charged are excessive, and consumers frequently feel ripped off. There is a logic to that, and it generally goes something like this ” If I called 3 or 4 companies and asked how much it would cost to tow my car 4 miles and store it 1 day, I could get a lot better price”, however that will not help get money refunded. The only way to get money refunded is if you can prove that the towing company violated the towing laws. Companies that make a practice of abusing consumers in this way are usually good at knowing what is impossible or impractical for a consumer to prove.
Now lets look at the driver of the tow truck that will come to rescue you. In California the DMV requires a special drivers license for certain types of commercial drivers. Tow companies need some drivers with DMV commercial licenses and some drivers may not need special licenses. Furthermore some police agencies or motor clubs may have special requirements that private party towing doesn’t. This creates a tempting situation to an unethical company when they are short on commercial licensed drivers or drivers with the special qualifications to do the job properly and legally, and may have a driver available who can drive the truck but is not properly licensed to do so. An unethical company will send the unqualified driver out just to get the job.
As of the writing of this article tow truck drivers in California do not need any special license or training as long as they do not tow more than one trailer and no more than 26,000 pounds total weight of all vehicles, that includes passengers and any thing else that may be in the vehicles. This means that almost every passenger car and family vehicle falls into this category. There is no legal requirement to background check or drug test tow drivers. This means companies are free to hire convicted felons, or who ever they want. Now for the good news, some police agencies and motor clubs do ask for drivers to meet some type of requirements for their tows, but enforcement is weak. Any quality tow company will drug test and background check their drivers as well as insure that the driver is well trained and properly licensed for the truck and tow job they are performing. A quality tow company will also have moral values and want their clients to be safe, thus they would not hire a person convicted of a major crime.
Now that you can see the many ways an unethical tow company can put you, your family, and the general public at risk of harm lets look at some things you can do to reduce the risk of harm.
1. Ask the phone receptionist a few questions. Do you background check all your employees and refuse to hire those convicted of major crimes? Do you do regular random drug testing on all employees? Do you require all drivers to be certified by some industry recognized training program such as CHP training or Wreckmaster before driving for you? Do you quote an accurate total price prior to doing the tow? Is your company a member of any trade associations? Does the receptionist answer your questions politely or seem aggravated by your questions. Obviously the aggravated one is the one to avoid.
2. Have you seen what this company’s trucks or employees look like? The unethical and undesirable companies will usually neglect appearance of vehicles, equipment, and employees. Another thing to make note of if you have seen the employees in action is their language, attitudes, and professionalism. These are all hints as to what type of company you are dealing with so be observant.
3. Ask the driver upon arrival and before they hook up your car what the charges will be so there is no misunderstanding of the charges. Remember once they hook up your car and there is a dispute they can impound the car if you don’t pay what they ask. Do not leave any valuables in the vehicle once you leave it.
4. When parking, always obey parking rules even on private property. When parked always hide and secure if possible any valuable personal property. Don’t take chances and park illegally even for just a minute.
5. Never accept a tow from a driver that stops to solicit, it is an illegal practice and no quality company will be out there breaking the law on purpose. Note that it is legal for a driver to stop if he is waived down, so if you are in an unsafe or dangerous place you will need to signal a driver to allow him to legally stop.
Written by David Lee Rupp, President of southern California based, 1800 Tow-Help Inc., serving Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.