A practice that first arose more than half a century ago as a way for big-city administrators to punish parking-ticket scofflaws has come to truck parking. Truckers increasingly have reported the use of wheel boots, windshield barnacles and in some cases tow trucks to enforce parking prohibitions on private property.
Fees for removing the boot or, in some cases, dropping the tow hook for a discount on the cash penalty have ranged from a couple hundred dollars to more than 10 times that amount. Outcries against the practice, particularly when the truck is occupied by a sleeping driver, are also on the rise.
State and municipal regulations exist all around the nation pertaining to booting and towing companies’ practices, including required signage and fees. When it comes to booting of occupied vehicles without notice, there’s little on the books anywhere, says Canton, Michigan-based small fleet owner Leander Richmond. He’s researched the issue in areas where drivers of his 12 trucks have run into problems – namely Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky – and elsewhere.
The reason for the lack of regulatory attention on this crucial point? Richmond believes because immobilizing an occupied car rarely happens, there’s been no groundswell of opposition outside of trucking.
Given the strict hours of service adherence under the electronic logging device mandate, finding adequate parking and using it for rest has become a more pressing priority. Consequently, as Richmond and many others know, a truck found in an improper site might well have a sleeping driver in it.
Regulation being developed in the state where the “Denver boot” was first built and used in the middle part of the last century, Colorado, could show a path forward for other states. The most important provision among those regulations is one that expressly “prohibits booting or immobilizing an occupied vehicle,” with exceptions allowed for intervention of a law enforcement officer, says Mike Matousek, manager of government affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
OOIDA has been getting clarification from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission about the proposed rules. A booting company representative will be forced to “come up to the vehicle and knock on the door” before holding the vehicle hostage, Matousek says. “That includes a commercial vehicle.”
Rule No. 6817 in the proposal puts a statewide cap on the boot removal fee at $120, and a $25 maximum charge for situations where the vehicle’s operator returns to the vehicle before the boot is installed. Those figures are well below four-figure fees that Matousek and Richmond have seen in invoices from companies operating overnight at Kentucky Walmarts or in otherwise unused commercial lots in North Carolina, where one of Richmond’s drivers has run into problems.
There can be a legitimate role for booting vehicles, says Matousek, “but when you’re booting an occupied motor vehicle, it raises questions when the fee is $2,000 or $3,000. There’s no justification for that amount.”
The Colorado Legislature regulated booting companies following attention brought to the practice by a citizen’s suit attempting to argue booting companies should be subject to existing state regulations around tow companies. The small-claims suit yielded a result that refunded the amount of the fee that exceeded the maximum in the booter’s contract with the property owner. Since nothing emerged regarding state regulation, state legislators began working on new regulations. At press time, they were pending approval.
Matousek believes that Colorado’s approach could provide a model for other states regarding vehicle immobilization, particularly with respect to booting an occupied vehicle, with one glaring exception. He worries that no mention in the regulations of so-called “barnacles” — devices that suction to parts of the vehicle, like the windshield, removable only with specialized tools — might prove to be a gaping loophole.
“We asked that they change the definition,” Matousek says, but the commission noted its hands were tied by the legislative language.
Such passing of the buck is too common in these parking enforcements. Small-fleet owner Richmond says his experience with local police and their knowledge of local regulations has shown most officers just “don’t know what to do with it. They say it’s a civil issue,” and wash their hands of most disputes.
That’s what independent owner-operator Howard Salmon found in November after being hooked to by a tow truck from Malone’s Wrecker Service in Dandridge, Tennessee, at 3 a.m. He was at the Speedway fuel stop at I-40 and Deep Springs Road, directly across from a Love’s truck stop that was full when he pulled in.
“There were several trucks parked,” he says of the relatively small paved area within the Speedway property. He parked, careful not to block dumpsters or diesel fuel islands. When he got a knock on the door three hours later, a Malone’s tow-truck operator had hooked his wrecker to Salmon’s Kenworth and offered a way out of the $650 fee that would be assessed if he were towed from the location.
“You can give us $300 cash,” Salmon says the operator told him, adding that he was not the first trucker forced to move that night. “They probably made $1,800 to $2,000 that night” in cash, Salmon estimates. “I’m in the wrong line of business.”
Owner Lynn Malone says he understands parking issues. “A lot of these places, they won’t let you park — it’s not right,” he says, “but we’re not going to go out there for nothing,” were they to wake a driver who then left with no fee paid for his mistake. So hooking to the truck without warning is how they operate under contract with Speedway.
Salmon says he saw no-parking signs around the fuel islands some distance away from his truck, though by Malone’s account, he missed others. He says there are as many as a dozen signs – No parking anytime … will be towed at owner’s expense by Malone’s Wrecker Service – placed around the property at Speedway’s request.
“They call us” as needed, Malone says. “It’s not every night — sometimes you might go a week or two without a call. Sometimes you might get called every two or three days.”
Salmon and no doubt others see the practice of hooking to the truck while the operator sleeps, with no prior notification by fuel stop personnel or the tow operator, as extortion. Local authorities told Salmon the existence of a contract between the stop and Malone makes the practice legal. “There’s nothing they can do about it,” Salmon says he was told by a local officer, who agreed the practice is, essentially, extortion.
Tennessee has little in the way of statewide regulation of what some call a “drop fee,” paid by the owner to unhook before the vehicle is towed. Some municipalities in the state do regulate those rates, but not Dandridge.
One of small-fleet owner Richmond’s drivers was booted in Gastonia, North Carolina, and a $1,600 removal fee was charged. Posted signage at the site of the boot was analyzed by the city after Richmond inquired about regulations.
The city determined the signage inadequate, out of compliance, and ordered the booting company to refund the money, Richmond says.
The booter then didn’t issue the refund, and the city took no further action. “Instead, we have to take [the booter] to court,” Richmond says. Considering legal fees and other inconveniences, he knows it makes no sense, so he hasn’t pursued litigation. Richmond says the booter likely will be able to keep the money.
While Richmond agrees with Matousek that Colorado’s initiative could be a useful model for cities and states, he’d prefer it be pursued at the federal level. “Do we have to wait for 49 states to line up and decide it’s a problem” individually? he asks. “For truckers to try and track down how you should park your damn truck in every single state and every single community — we don’t have time to fight this.”
Matousek believes “national regulation is possible,” given Congress in Title 49 of the U.S. Code does to some extent regulate nonconsensual towing. “Booting is basically a form of that. There could be a role for Congress to come up with some provision that basically says, nationwide, you cannot boot an occupied commercial motor vehicle.”
Richmond has communicated repeatedly about the issue with his own representatives in Michigan. “They’ve largely ignored him,” says Matousek, but “I think they should take this seriously. Some of the invoices I’ve seen are just crazy.”
“Give the guy a chance to move the vehicle, then be towed,” Salmon agrees. “This is just plain wrong. You’d think that the management would come out and tell you that you can’t park there.”
Lynn Malone says staff at the Speedway location in Dandridge used to do just that and, as Malone’s tow drivers still do, point haulers back across I-40 to a former truck stop site where property owners seem to allow use of the lot. (That’s where Salmon ended up after paying his $300 fee in November.)
In the wee hours, though, it’s not always practical for Speedway’s minimal staff to leave the building, ownership at the site said. Also, one incident – a bag of excrement thrown at a member of the staff by an irate trucker, noted the fuel stop’s owner, who declined to be named – put them all over the edge on confronting illegally parked truckers.
It’s this sort of thing that drivers of all stripes have pointed to as problematic for areas where a tenant or property owner has the discretion to allow parking. Many Walmart locations once were friendly to overnight truckers but now have gone 180 degrees in the other direction.
Think about it from the perspective of the property owners, says David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies.
“Let’s say that you and I own a shopping center in a small town, and we let guys park there only because the parking lot’s never full, and maybe we’ll say, ‘They’ll buy something in one of the stores.’ We’re being a good neighbor, and then the jerks come in and put trash all over the parking lot — we don’t know who’s doing it. Finally, we get fed up, and we put up signs — no big truck parking anymore.”
One solution to those kinds of situations, he says, is “for drivers and companies to police it themselves. They’re the only ones who can identify” the problem actors. “They’ve been running the same lanes for 20 years, they know where the parking is, and they know the people who are trashing it.” Sometimes, he says, better results come when you handle a problem yourself “without the government being involved.”
Meanwhile, at other locations, if there’s signage or it’s unclear whether longer-term parking is kosher, the safest approach is to ask staff for the reality. If no one’s around and you’re unsure, the best default is to keep searching. It could save you a bundle.
Next in this series: Sometimes, renegade booters get their just desserts