When Linda Johnson traded in her car last November, the dealer immediately transferred her registration, Virginia license plate and Colonial Village parking sticker to the new vehicle.
Yet the next morning the car was gone, having been towed from her parking lot. When she retrieved the vehicle, Johnson found that the towing company had damaged the underbelly and illegally broken in to remove her sticker.
Although she received assurances from the company that the car would not be erroneously towed a second time, the car was no where to be seen the next morning.
"It was ridiculous," Johnson said in an interview last week. "There’s no control or regulation of this industry."
JOHNSON’S TALE is far from unique. In recent years hundreds of Arlington residents have complained to the county that they have either been overcharged by towing companies or had their vehicles illegally removed.
"For years we’ve been in and out of court trying to protect consumers" from unlawful towing practices, said County Board member Jay Fisette. "We’ve heard lots of horror stories of merchandise and computers stolen out of cars with no recourse from the companies."
Now the county is hoping that it can use new authority from the Virginia General Assembly to better protect residents from predatory towing. The County Board is considering adopting a new ordinance that will establish stricter oversight of the industry.
Last week the board created a towing advisory board comprised of police officers, tow company owners and one resident.
"Like any industry that’s unregulated, tow companies can be abusive in some instances," Fisette said. "There are some bad apples in the industry that give the whole industry a bad name."
IN THE MID-1990s Arlington had a towing ordinance on the books, but new federal legislation removed local supervision of the companies. This past spring the General Assembly passed a bill granting jurisdictions the authority to set standards for the towing of vehicles from private property.
Several Arlington towing companies have enthusiastically backed a new ordinance, and have pushed for an influential role in the advisory committee.
"We’re trying to regulate ourselves to get some of the cancer out of the industry," said Al Leach, owner of Al’s Towing and Storage.
The draft plan of the ordinance would require towing operators to obtain written permission of the property owner before they remove a vehicle. This would put into place a new layer of oversight, and prevent the harassment of customers who may park at one business and then walk off-site to patron other nearby shops.
If the ordinance is passed, tow truck drivers would be obliged to take digital pictures or videos of the vehicle before towing, creating documentary evidence of illegal parking.
Both county officials and tow operators have spoken out in favor of mandating photographs. The companies need the proof to rebut residents’ claims that they were not unlawfully parked, Leach said.
"This will show the offense and keep everybody honest," he added.
Requiring photos be taken will enable the police to determine if any damage to the car was caused by the towing company, as residents sometimes claim, said Capt. Kamran Afzal, who will serve on the towing advisory board.
Tow truck drivers are supposed to notify police before they haul away a car, but sometimes they fail to do so, Afzal said. The advisory board will give the police and companies a forum to improve communication and cooperation, he added.
THE COUNTY also seeks to ensure that if a resident arrives before their car is removed from the lot, they will only have to pay a small fee and will have the car returned.
Other measures in the draft plan include requiring towing companies to accept credit or debit cards, ensuring that vehicles are only towed to 24-hour facilities and mandating that those facilities be within three miles of the county line.
The County Board will also consider increasing the towing fee from its current $85 to as much as $125, and may also raise additional late-night, weekend and holiday fees.
Leach, owner of Al’s Towing and Storage, said that fees have not been increased since 1994 and that a hike is long overdue. The additional revenue will enable towing companies to better train drivers and allow them to purchase new equipment, he added.
"If we get more money it will raise expectations, and be better for us and the customers," Leach said.