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Say no to 'legalized theft': More states should act to rein in rampant abuse of nonconsensual tow fees

Greg Fulton Headshot
semi-truck and tow truck on side of road
Greg Fulton, the author of this editorial, leads the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.

Several months ago, one of our member companies received a bill where one of the individuals listed on it was billed at a rate of $250 per hour, and another one at $350 per hour. You might think that these individuals were high-powered attorneys, doctors or senior managers in a corporation. But they weren’t. The billing was for a tow truck driver and safety official for a nonconsensual tow of a tractor-trailer. 

To add some perspective to this, the average hourly rate for a tow truck driver in the state where the tow occurred is a little over $21. The rate on the bill for the tow truck driver was 10 times greater than the average hourly rate for such a driver. 

The likely reality is that neither the tow truck driver nor the safety person received anywhere close to the hourly rate on the bill -- rather, it’s conceivable the greatest part of the amount went straight into the pockets of the tow company itself.

To add insult to injury, the tow company itself charged $350/hour for the truck. This translates to an overall hourly cost of $600/hour for one truck, with the driver. After totaling up a variety of inflated costs, the tow bill for this one incident exceeded $50,000 for a little more than eight hours of work. 

This is not meant to be disrespectful of tow truck drivers or towing companies who provide a vital service to the public. The majority of these companies are reputable operators, but as in other industries, there are exceptions where businesses take advantage of a situation.

Most states have a rotation for tow truck operators called out on short notice to clear incidents on highways in the state. Tow truck companies must apply to be on the rotation. These tow truck operators are ordered into service by law enforcement in response to an accident or disabled vehicle that may pose a safety problem or adversely affect traffic flow. These tows are defined as nonconsensual, because the owner of the damaged truck has no say in who the towing operator is or what rate or price will be charged for the service.

Being on the rotation is not a right under the law, but rather a privilege extended by the state providing the company the sole ability to provide the service for those incidents. 

Nonconsensual tows in many cases occur at a very trying time for a truck driver and trucking company, after they have been involved in an accident. The first concern of the trucking company and its operator, of course, is the welfare of that operator and all others involved in the crash. As any owner-operator knows, company ownership also must be concerned with the damage to their vehicle and the status of the cargo. For drivers and companies involved, this is an extremely stressful and painful event.  

What they should not have to be worried about is being taken advantage of by a state-authorized towing operator ratcheting up the pain by charging exorbitant fees, which the company has little choice but to pay. The tow operator in these cases holds the vehicle and its cargo hostage until the trucking company pays the tow bill, no matter the cost. There is no real ability to negotiate on these nonconsensual tows. While an exorbitant tow bill represents a major expense to a larger trucking company, it can prove to be disastrous to a small fleet or owner-operator. 

Some have defined this practice as legalized theft, where state and local governments unwittingly abet abuses with little recourse available for the vehicle owner. In such cases of nonconsensual tows, the public has a right to expect that the state will afford consumers and businesses some level of protection for a service where they have no choice in the provider, nor any control over the cost of the service. 

Yet, today, the only recourse in many of these situations is after the fact, and spending additional time and money, typically, going to court to try to redress the situation.

Several states in the country have taken action to curb these abuses where they have passed legislation and implemented rules that place reasonable limits on nonconsensual tows. One of those states is mine -- Colorado, where after several years of work, implementation of limits made a tremendous difference. The number of calls and complaints coming into my office about Colorado tow operators dropped to almost zero. 

[Related: Parking perils: The increasing costs (and risks) of booting and towing]

Unfortunately, though, our carriers travel into other states without such rules, and the cost for the same incident on the same highway but on the other side of the state line can cost five to 10 times more.

Carefully crafted rules ensure a fair return for towing operators while preventing abuses by bad actors.  

We recognize the importance of towing operators. They are critical to keeping our roads open and safe. Like any other business, they deserve and should receive a fair return for the services provided. They must also be compensated for being on call as part of the rotation, so it makes sense that the rate be somewhat higher than the normal charge. 

At the same time, the trucking industry should not be at the mercy of unscrupulous towing operators that abuse the privilege of being on a state’s safety rotation. With our country and industry already struggling due to a broken supply chain, these towing abuses only worsen the problem by adding unnecessary time and cost to trucking operations large and small. States should act now to enact legislation that establishes guidance for nonconsensual tows and fair compensation for those services. 

[Related: Could Colorado's booting regulation be model for the nation?]

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