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.

There are several online directories that list tow companies. The National Truck & Trailer Services Breakdown Directory (nttsbreakdown.com) allows you to search for tow companies by city, state and category, and offers listings for 24-hour services and comparative prices. Other similar services include TruckDown.com and towing.com

Many truck and engine makers have call centers that facilitate roadside assistance. If a tow is necessary, a call center can provide a reference from its database of what it considers to be reputable towers. Call centers often enable drivers to negotiate terms of the tow before the order is put in.

As most towing companies charge hourly for each piece of equipment, some of which can cost up to $600,000, bills can add up fast when multiple trucks are needed. Plus, few governmental rate regulations are imposed on towing companies, so steady rates are rarely guaranteed.

Owner-operator Chris Dickson was charged $1,500 when a wrecker pulled his broken-down truck 150 miles to his Meridian, Miss., home. Though $10 per mile was more than he expected to pay, “Business is business, and they’ve got families to feed too,” Dickson says of the tow company and its drivers. He didn’t have tow insurance.

Some situations may demand an expensive bill, especially for an involved cleanup in a recovery situation such as Gantner’s. Nonetheless, there are things you can do to hold down the cost.

If you break down in an unfamiliar area, there are ways to find a reputable service, especially if you have time to make some calls. One is to call a trusted towing company in your hometown to get a referral, says Joseph Schultz, towing operations manager at Homer’s Towing and Service in Milwaukee. Other referral sources could be truck dealerships, service centers and repair shops in the area where you break down.

You can also call towing companies in the area and ask for prices. If they’ve quoted you a rate over the phone, they may be more likely to stick to those rates when they present your bill.

If you are involved in an accident that requires police to call a towing company immediately to clear the road, you have fewer options. Still, if the bill seems too high, consult with a hometown tower you trust. “If you don’t feel comfortable with it, negotiate with the tower,” Gantner advises.

If you are wary of the tow company that gets called to the scene, ask the driver to tow your truck the least distance possible, such as to the nearest exit ramp or parking lot where it will be out of the way. “That will at least buy you some time,” Gantner says.

You might want to negotiate rates, search for another local tow operator or, if it’s feasible, get a tow operator from your hometown. Gantner, a customer of Homer’s Towing, says he’s had the company pick up wrecked or broken-down trucks as far as three states away because he trusts their rates and is able to have repair work done.

You need not automatically expect the worst in a situation where law enforcement has to call a tow company, says Jason Strickland, of Wellington, Kan.-based Strickland Towing. A tow operator who’s trusted by the authorities likely is capable of clearing a serious accident quickly. n


Certified tow companies

One way to screen potential tow companies is by certification, though there is more than one certifying body. If you do, check for heavy-duty certification, which is specific to class eight trucks. The Towing and Recovery Association of America offers a two-part oral and written test, Wreckmasters provides hands-on training and a written test, and many state towing associations offer heavy-duty certification courses.

Texas has imposed laws mandating light-duty tow operator certification, but no states require heavy-duty certification. Natasha Patterson, TRAA’s director of certification operations, says, “It sounds like something’s coming down the pipeline with level three state certification, but nothing’s happened yet.”

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