As Americans mull their “revenge travel” summer road trips, they have all sorts of expenses to consider including food, lodging and high-priced gas.
They’ll also have to factor in the costs and aggravation of getting their car towed and the scant legal protections barring unfair tows prompted by financially-motivated property owners, according to a report released Wednesday.
Drivers can get their car towed away all over the country for parking in the wrong spot for too long, blocking an entrance or a fire hydrant, or making some other type of motorist mistake.
But in roughly 30 states, there are no state laws against property owners calling tow truck companies to haul away offending vehicles — and then getting some type of payment from the tow truck company, according to a new report from consumer advocates at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
Fewer than 20 states ban “kickbacks” when it comes to private property tows. Some of the laws are stronger than others, the report said. All 50 states should have laws on the books barring “predatory towing” that pounces on cars and squeezes the drivers who badly need their rides back, the organization said.
“There should already be enough incentives for business owners to have unauthorized vehicles towed from their property if they care about only having parking for customers and/or employees,” the report said, adding, “Kickbacks open a door to potential malpractice that does not need to be opened.”
One towing industry leader disputed the report’s findings. The idea of tow truck companies offering kickbacks to property owners on nonconsensual tows is “a myth,” according to John Connolly, who’s had his own towing Denver-area towing business for five decades and is now president of the Towing and Recovery Professionals of Colorado. The closest he’s every come was an apartment manager who once offered to buy a towed car if it wasn’t claimed, Connolly recalled.
Colorado is one of the states without provisions banning payments to property owners who request a non-consensual tow, the U.S. PIRG report notes. Lawmakers in the state are pressing for changes to its towing laws and if any anti-kickback provisions come in, that would be fine by Connolly — because it’s not an issue to begin with, he said.
The Towing and Recovery Association of America, a national trade group for tow companies, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
States with anti-kickback laws include California, Florida, California, Georgia, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee and Texas. Illinois also has a ban that says “No rebate, payment of money, or any other valuable consideration shall be paid for the privilege of removing or towing vehicles.” But they are in the minority.
More states, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Nevada lack protections, U.S. PIRG researchers said.
A towed car, justified or not, can be a major disruption to everyday life. That’s especially so as more people rev up commutes back to their workplaces, carry out chores in person or find time to go out with friends and family. The national average cost of a tow was $109 as of 2020, according to J.D. Power, with higher prices for larger vehicles.
The U.S. PIRG report points to market research estimating the towing industry will rake in more than $11 billion during 2022 as it hauls away cars, a 10% increase from 2020.
Many states offer some types of consumer protections when it comes to towed vehicles, but much more can be done, the report said.
In 37 states, towing companies have to tell the owner or driver that the vehicle is getting towed. But just 14 states mandate that towing companies show their rates and tow truck operators in just four states have to take a picture of the vehicle before the tow to document why it’s getting taken away.
Cities and local governments can help drivers by passing their own laws when it comes to tows, the report said.
For example, Detroit enacted laws in October that, among other things, say towing companies have to accept all forms of payment and not just cash. If the owner arrives and pays a fee, the car has to be disconnected, says another part of the law.
No states passed laws last year expanding consumer protections in the event of a tow, the report said. Yet legislators in states like Colorado are considering the issue, the researchers said.
Connolly said there are aspects of the legislative proposal in his state that he supports, including eliminating some of the reasons used to justify non-consensual tows or using stickers to warn drivers their car could get hauled away without quick action.
But other proposals, like an idea to let drivers get their car back even if they cannot afford the towing fee, go too far and ask too much of towing companies that have their own costs and labor to cover, Connolly said.
Compared to consensual tows, it costs towing companies more to carry out non-consensual tows, he noted. That’s due to factors including staff requirements and the real estate and insurance costs connected with storing towed cars. State agencies set Colorado’s rate on non-consensual tows, Connolly said, adding that towing companies are just following the rules by taking away vehicles when asked by private property owners or law enforcement.
The people towing away vehicles end up getting unfairly forced into the role of the bad guy, spoiling a driver’s day and getting a bad reputation, said Connolly. They “take the fall for it, because they are the one enforcing the rules, whatever the rule is.”
There’s certainly room for improvement, said Teresa Murray of the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “Banning kickbacks should be a no-brainer. Kickbacks give people incentives to get vehicles that aren’t breaking any rules towed. Why would we incentivize that?”
Drivers with towed-away cars should be ready to scrutinize all charges on a towing bill to spot any overcharges and know that they can possibly press for reimbursement in the damages resulting from an unfair or careless tow, according to a U.S. PIRG tipsheet.