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Putting the Brakes on Tow Trucks

Moran’s legislation proposes new powers for local governments.

All Mike Garfield wanted was his $120. In January, Garfield’s car was towed from a restaurant parking lot in South Arlington, when the tow truck driver thought Garfield had gone to the Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Garfield protested, and showed the staff at Frank’s Towing his receipt from the restaurant. When that didn’t work, he paid the $120 charge the towing service told him he owed, and took his car home. Later that day, he discovered that the rear wheels weren’t turning. A mechanic told him it was damage from a tow truck. “There’s no resolution to this day,” said Garfield, an employee of the county’s transportation department. “I just want my money back.”

On Monday, July 19, U.S. Rep. James Moran (D-8) joined County Board members to announce a measure they hope will satisfy drivers like Garfield. Moran introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday that would increase state and local control over tow truck companies, including the prices and penalties levied on drivers towed for parking illegally, also called a “non-consensual” tow.

It will fill a decade-old vacuum, Moran said, and Board member Jay Fisette said it was authority that is sorely needed. “Local government has more authority to regulate your manicurist,” said Fisette (D), “to regulate how far from the curb a hot dog vendor sets up his stand, to regulate the height of your grass.”

But towing company owners on hand said Moran and the Board members are going overboard. There may be a need for more authority to punish towing companies that break the rules, said Tim Steigleman. But the result of Moran’s bill, he said, will just be cuts in the cost of a tow.

“No one’s going to go to work every day if they’re going to get a pay deduction,” he said.

IN 1994, amendments to the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act gave sole authority to regulate tow truck operators to the federal government, and in 1995, legislation putting an end to the Interstate Commerce Commission ended the federal body that provided the most oversight. “For the last decade, there has been virtually no regulation,” said Moran.

The lack of regulation created problems in the Washington area, said Moran. As proof, he pointed to Frank’s Towing, the company that towed Garfield’s car. Frank’s has generated close to 150 complaints over the last two years: complaints of cars damaged by the tow, cars towed without reason and drivers who complain to management turned away with threats.

“Sometimes, I think it’s 95 percent making the other 5 percent look bad,” Moran said.

CURRENTLY, U.S. CODE only allows state and local governments to regulate the cost that a driver would pay for a non-consensual tow. But that language leaves too many questions unanswered, said Board Chair Barbara Favola (D), questions like: Who can decide when a car has been wrongfully towed? Who can determine how much a company should pay when a car is damaged during a tow? And who can determine when a towing company has crossed the line?

Currently, Fisette said, those are questions only the towing companies or the federal government can answer.

“There’s only so much we can do at the local level. On the one hand, local businesses and residents are tired of being abused,” he said. “On the other hand, the place we go for a remedy, the federal government, created the problem.”

That problem would be solved by the proposed amendment, Moran said. But he didn’t see immediate success. “It’s going to be difficult” to pass the proposal, he said. But if enough lawmakers and enough of their constituents are affected by a wrongful tow, it will get easier, Moran said.

TOWING IS ONLY a problem when politicians get towed, said Rick Quinn, owner of Henry’s Wrecking Service in Falls Church. When they do, they start cracking down on problems perceived without a sense of balance, he said. “You got one guy, whose got one or two trucks out there, and they’re changing the rules for everybody,” he said.

Steigleman, owner of Fairfax-based Metro Towing Service, agreed. “I’m the only towing company operating in Arlington that has zero complaints,” he said, and he resented being lumped in with other companies that don’t have the same clean record.

Rogue towing companies should be punished, he said, and elected officials like Moran and the County Board should spend their time figuring out how to do that. “That’s something they’ve got to decide,” said Steigleman.

But the only solution he’s heard proposed is a cut in the price of a non-consensual tow. “They want to lower the price, and that’s not fair to towers,” he said. “It hurts good towing companies, and there’s a lot of good towing companies out there.”

Currently, a driver whose car has been towed from an illegal parking space or a restricted lot can pay, at most, an $85 fee in Arlington, and a $50 fee in Fairfax County, a price that should pay for the tow and up to one day of storage. Towing companies that charge more are in violation of the sole authority that local governments now have.

But those costs are nowhere near the real cost of a tow, Quinn said. When a motorist calls for a tow because his car has broken down, the average charge is $67.50 to hook the car up to the truck, and $3 a mile for transportation, he said, without factoring in storage costs.

With oil prices and wages going up, those capped fees haven’t changed for a while, said Steigleman. “There’s a fairness that needs to be done.”