Know before you tow

Lanier Norville | June 01, 2010

Plenty of prep before an emergency is the best way to avoid an outrageous towing bill.

Mike Gantner says the sudden draining of money due to an expensive tow bill can be like a slice of the jugular. Gantner, fleet manager of TTI, a 160-truck fleet based in Eden, Wis., received such a bill when one of his drivers lost consciousness and hit a toll booth on the Ohio Turnpike. The collision totaled the rig and scattered rolls of paper, blocking lanes of traffic. With no tow insurance on the truck, Gantner faced a $20,000 tow bill.

Cleaning spilled cargo can add hours to your tow bill, especially if you have to wait for a second trailer to reload what’s salvageable. If hazardous materials are spilled, towers have to call hazmat experts to ensure safety, adding even more time to the recovery process.

He and others have discovered smart ways to prepare for the worst. Knowing a hometown tow operator, compiling a services directory on your route, negotiating prices and knowing if your insurance covers towing and recovery are important steps toward preparing you for a breakdown or recovery situation and saving you money.

Independent team drivers Jack and Shirley Clifford found out about towing insurance the hard way. When a turbo on their 2004 Volvo blew near Billings, Mont., the bill was $720 for two wreckers to tow their tractor and trailer 20 miles to the nearest Cummins shop. Montana requires separate tows regardless of the trailer’s weight.

“It was a lot of money for 20 miles,” Jack Clifford says. It took the drivers about an hour to complete the job, but they were billed for three hours, from the time Shirley Clifford placed the call until the drivers had completed the tow and parked their trucks. Because it was a Sunday, an additional fee was charged for the tow drivers’ overtime pay. In the end, it cost the Cliffords $125 per hour to tow the tractor and $115 an hour to tow the trailer.

As soon as the couple arrived at their Santa Fe, Texas, home, Shirley called the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which provides their insurance, to ask about tow insurance. She bought $1,000 worth of towing coverage. If the Cliffords had it when the breakdown occurred, they would have been responsible only for paying the first $150 and insurance would have paid the rest, up to $1,000, Shirley says.

“Prior to the accident, I had never heard of tow insurance,” Jack says. “I wish I had known about it a long time ago.”

As helpful as insurance can be, it’s not foolproof. Schultz says trucks often are parked on his lot, sometimes for months, because of discrepancies with insurance or the owner’s inability to pay. He says about a third of his clients don’t have enough coverage to pay the entire towing and recovery bill.

Neither Gladiator Insurance Services nor Progressive Commercial offers towing-specific insurance, though some plans offer coverage for recovery costs, company representatives say. If your insurance company does not provide tow insurance, learn how much your liability or damage insurance will pay in a recovery situation.

OOIDA offers two kinds of tow insurance. The first, supplemental tow and cleanup insurance, is an add-on to physical damage coverage that will cover the cost of towing in a recovery situation. It’s offered in $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000 increments. Because supplemental tow and cleanup is offered as an enhancement to the physical damage coverage, there is no deductible for this coverage. The deductible only applies to the physical damage. Most owner-operators buy $5,000 worth of coverage, according to OOIDA insurance specialist Clydith Carnahan. A $5,000 policy costs $50 per year.

The second type, roadside breakdown, applies to towing and roadside labor in a mechanical breakdown. The rates increase as the truck ages. Yearly rates increase by about $30 when the truck reaches two, five and nine years old, and trucks 12 years and older are not eligible for the coverage. The coverage reimburses owner-operators for up to $1,500 per year. It does not include the cost of replacement parts. A $1,500 policy on a new truck costs about $200 per year. All OOIDA rates are subject to change.

The first priority of law enforcement officers arriving at the scene is clearing the highway to prevent other accidents. Though it varies by municipality, police often call a company on a rotating list of towers they trust.

Carnahan says OOIDA began offering towing insurance in 2005 due to growing concern over the lack of regulation in the towing industry. She suggests selecting a tow service that has a Better Business Bureau accreditation. strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.