Surviving a tow

Cute doesn’t mean a tow truck is right for an 18-wheeler. Get the right wrecker or take a chance.

You usually know it immediately. Maybe you lose power. Or you can’t avoid debris that tears into your undercarriage. Sometimes you cough and sputter to a stop. But it almost always hits you in the blink of an eye: you are going to have to be towed.

A lot of drivers have horror stories, some of which could have been avoided, some of which are the result of a no-win breakdown. “I had a sensor light out on the New Jersey turnpike,” recalls Andrew Byler of Thompson Town, Pa. “I called the towing company and they towed me for three miles. It cost $400 or $600, I can’t remember.”

Sometimes there’s not much you can do. But usually, there is. If the calamity doesn’t bring law enforcement who then take over control (see “Yes, Officer” on page 45), there is more to do than stand idly by while a wrecker tows you away to a shop.

Find a safe place to stop.
The first thing you can do is act before your rig becomes stationary.

“The most important thing to do,” says Texas tower David Goode, “is get to a safe spot for you and your rig, and, if you can, a place that will make the tow easier.”

If your engine quits running, don’t just jam on the brakes. You might be able to coast to a better place than where you are.

“You drive a big rig; try to imagine what the wrecker driver is going to have to do with his rig to get to where he can tow you,” Goode says. “A lot of drivers don’t, and when we arrive it’s a nightmare to get hooked up, and that means time and money. If you are stopped next to a guard rail, you are going to make it hard, and dangerous, for the wrecker driver.”

A lot of drivers try to get off a paved roadway, and in some cases that is a move that can improve road safety. But sometimes it isn’t necessary – all it does is leave a wrecker driver fighting mud and uneven surfaces.

“If you run just your right steer wheel off the road into soft dirt,” says Goode, “the wrecker has to lift and block a number of times to get the axle back to level and high enough so he can slide under it with his equipment: more time and money and maybe even a higher risk of damage to your rig.”

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Choose a reputable tower.
Have a game plan – don’t wait to start thinking about a tow truck after you’ve broken down. Have a list of reputable towing companies with you, or know that a quick call to your company will have them finding the right company to tow you. Choosing one from the phone book is a gamble. If you must make a quick choice, try and find someone who is a member of a national or state towing association, because they will have to meet standards to retain their membership.

“You do not want a company that is not properly insured or doesn’t have the right equipment,” says Dee Brown, operations manager for Suburban Towing in Louisville, Ky. “You want one of the good guys.” Fortunately, he says, most in the business are good guys.

If your company uses a national towing service database, such as that of the American Towing Alliance ( or FleetNet America’s Select Towing and Recovery Program (, make sure you can easily select and contact the tower nearest your breakdown. If law enforcement officers know a reputable company is coming, they may let you remain where you have broken down a little longer. If you can’t contact someone and ensure that this is happening, you have a far greater chance of the law calling in a tower of their choice.

In many cases, who tows you is not up to you – the authorities want the road cleared and they call in the wrecking company. During these “nonconsensual tows,” as they’re called, a big rig driver needs to be vigilant in ensuring the wrecker – who should be experienced and have good equipment – does the right thing.

Remain alert. Just because you expect the perfect wrecker and driver doesn’t mean you will get them. Drop your guard and put your mind on cruise control and you might find yourself with a hefty bill. “[The towing company] carried me to the garage up in Ohio outside Cincinnati. It was $350 just to hook me up and $3 a mile there and back,” says driver John Mishler of Jennings, Fla., of a particularly costly tow.

Sometimes you will have no choice but to sit and watch something bad happen to your disabled truck when you can do nothing about it. “Quick clear” regulations in a number of jurisdictions let officers have you stopped or rolled off the road as fast as possible no matter what could happen to your vehicle. “We’ve seen reefers turn over,” says Brown. “Not a real problem – we could get them back up or at least start the reefer motor to save the load – but wreckers get told by the officers to just haul it off the road, and in doing so the trailer gets so broken up it’ll never run again.”

Safeguard yourself.
Even if you aren’t fully aware of the intricacies of lifting up and towing your big rig, common sense can help. A single-axle wrecker built to haul four-wheelers can cause you more problems that it solves, even if the driver offers you a great price. It won’t have the right equipment, which means it could damage your vehicle, and even if it gets you moving down a highway, it may not be able to stop in a hurry if it has to.

“Big rig towing isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of hauling,” says Brown, “even though basically it is the same system. The driver who arrives must know how to tow your make and model, and if a trailer is involved they must know how to handle the weight and load configuration. If they don’t, they can do a lot of damage.”

According to Goode, “what you see is what you get” could well be a good way to judge a wrecking service.

“If a guys shows up in a beat-up old wrecker,” says Goode, whose wreckers have won Pride & Polish Truck Beauty Contest trophies, “it’s probably reasonable for a trucker to think that since he doesn’t care much about his rig he probably won’t care much about yours. Old rigs are OK – it’s the care of them that a trucker can use to make some on-the-spot judgments.” In some cases, an older wrecker might not be able to handle the air ride on some trucks, though.

The same approach can be applied to the wrecker’s driver, says Goode. “I start out each day with starched, ironed clothes, because towing is my life and my reputation is on the line. But give me a break, wrecker drivers do a lot of mechanical work, so I may turn up dirty after hauling three or four dirty rigs before I get to you.”

Know your towing needs.
Check with your company or the tractor manufacturer (or the manual) to see what you need to know about towing. “Knowing how your truck needs to be towed is something a driver should really be aware of,” says Brown. “Do you know that the drive shaft has to come out, or an axle removed, or the transmission could be destroyed during the two? Do you know that the wrecker driver has to make sure there is an air supply to the trailer because without it you could do all sorts of damage? Do you know that picking up a tractor from the back will work fine in most cases, but doing that with some new-model tractors can do serious damage?”

Be prepared even if it’s not your truck. If it’s a company truck, you may think it’s not your job to worry too much, just make a phone call and wait. Nope. If you’re a company driver, handling yourself like a pro when you break down is a way to build a career and enhance hireability. How well you handle a breakdown could tell your company how well you’ll handle equipment, load and time emergencies when they all happen at once. It may be the linchpin in a decision to lease your own truck on with the carrier in the future.

As the driver, you may be asked to make some decisions without the time to have your company on the cell phone. “Which yard do you want us to take this to?” Insurance is going to be vital, too, and while it may be company insurance and not yours, knowing what it covers and what it doesn’t could be important.

If a warranty is only worth the money if you break down, consider breakdown insurance. You pay, and if you don’t break down you never see the money again. But if you do – you are way, way ahead, because the premiums are very small compared to a towing bill. But make sure you buy that insurance from a reputable company; as is the case with warranties, the small print sometimes can contain surprises.

Keep your wits about you.
A towing scene is common enough – you probably see them every day – but when you are the disabled driver, you are in an uncommon world. So be careful.

“Truckers need to realize that while they are watching what’s happening and trying to make sure their tractor, trailer and load are going to be OK, they may lose touch with where they are,” says Brown. “It may be very, very dangerous if you don’t stay aware of what’s going on. I remember a case where a wrecker – not one of ours – had hooked up an 18-wheeler and was about to move away when the trucker wanted to get out of the wrecker cab and go back and get something from his cab. He did, but as he climbed out of his cab he stepped out into highway traffic, and he was hit and killed.”

It’s the driver’s job to make sure he takes care of his personal belongings, and it’s a wise career move to be sure company documentation not needed by the tower are also in a safe place, preferably in the possession of the trucker. Truckers can usually ride with tow truck drivers and be delivered to the same place, but then contact with the company office via cell phone is going to determine the trucker’s next move. That same system will be used to coordinate a tractor to pick up the stranded load – if it is moveable – and to find the driver a ride to where he can resume his job if his tractor is going to be off the road for more than a few hours.

Because cameras are now so cheap, and even some simple throwaways can create quality pictures, it never hurts to take some pictures of the scene and the towing activity. Mostly, tows go off without a hitch. But if there is a complication or a dispute, those photos might be all that backs up your recollection of events.

Yes, Officer
Once you have wrecked or broken down, you are no longer the ultimate authority in your own big rig, no longer the captain of your own ship. The state highway patrol, or whichever authority has jurisdiction, is in charge.

“The driver’s main responsibility is to stay out of the way and let the authorities and the authorized tow truck do their work and move the rig,” says Lt. Ron Castleberry, a spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol.

“The driver might be able to provide some help if there are special circumstances; for example, he might have to describe a mechanical problem to help the tow truck driver. If the load needs securing or something needs to be done to lessen risk, if perhaps it was a hazardous load, the driver might be asked to help with that. But unless what he has to say or do is helping, the trucker pretty much just has to let the tow truck driver do his work. We wouldn’t demand he stay in the cab or move away from the scene, just that he doesn’t get in the way. We won’t wait while he adjusts or works with a load if the road needs clearing, because that road and the people on it are our priority.”

If the big rig is not a danger to people or not blocking a roadway, Castleberry says officers might allow the trucker to choose which towing company hauls the rig. “That will depend on the circumstances – where the rig is and just what the problem is. We would not be too patient if he was blocking an intersection at rush hour. But if he was on the shoulder of the roadway and not a danger to passing traffic or blocking traffic, we might wait for hours if he wants a certain company to tow him.”

Other states will also try to oblige the trucker as long as any delay does not cause problems.

If the state trooper needs to clear the road, he will call in the tow truck from a list approved by the FHP. As is the case in many states, tow trucks called in by state troopers are part of a rotation and to be able to tow big rigs companies must meet FHP standards. “Not all of the companies on our rotation have Class C wreckers that are big enough to haul big rigs, but a tow truck called for that purpose will meet out requirements,” Castleberry says. Other states follow suit. In Ohio, for example, towing outfits in the rotation must meet insurance, equipment and capability requirements, maintain a secure impound lot, be able to provide 24-hour wrecker service and 24-hour phone numbers, and be able to respond to calls in a reasonable amount of time.

If the rig is moveable, officers will ask the driver to move it, says Castleberry, “but if it is broken down,” he says, “the driver better have the flares and safety equipment required by Florida statute” and be using them in the correct way.

Castleberry recommends that drivers keep a handy list (e.g. in a cell phone or log book) of towing companies that operate along their routes. It is also important, he says, for the driver to know exactly where they are, because how long a wrecker is going to take to reach the scene is an important factor in whether the authorities will wait for the tow truck of your choice.