How Tow Truck Companies Work

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Private Sector Service

  • Depending on the size and capabilities of its truck fleet, a towing company moves disabled vehicles at the request of either the vehicle's owner or the owner/administrator of the property that the vehicle is occupying. In urban areas where available parking is limited, the owners of apartment complexes or commercial properties (e.g. strip malls, corporate parks) will often buy an adjacent parking lot and reserve its use for their clients. If an unauthorized vehicle parks in these spaces, the landlord (acting in lieu of the owner) will usually call a towing company to take it away. Once the tow truck picks up the vehicle, the driver transports it to the towing company's impound lot--a heavily fortified parking lot complete with automatic gate, multiple locks and barbed wire along the top of the chain-link fence.

    To avoid confrontation with parking violators, most landlords use a single towing company and post a sign in the reserved parking lot containing that company's name, address and phone number. Violators can retrieve their vehicles by going to the impound lot and paying a fee to cover of towing costs, storage costs, administrative costs and, if applicable, holiday or after-business-hours fees.

    Emergency Service
    If a motorist's vehicle breaks down on the road or simply won't start, he usually calls a towing company to transport his disabled car to a mechanic. Typically, the tow truck with give the motorist a ride as well. Once they have arrived at the auto shop, the motorist will either pay the driver on the spot or fill out an invoice to be sent to his house later. Companies like the American Automotive Association (a.k.a. "AAA" or "Triple-A") sell year-long insurance policies to cover towing costs. Otherwise, motorists are required to pay themselves.

    The exception to this is if the vehicle is disabled due to a collision, wherein one can include the fee in their claim submission to their automotive collision insurance company.

Public/Municipal Service

  • Metered parking and fees from parking violations are important sources of revenue for local government, with most funds going toward road repair and police departments. Towing companies play a crucial role in enforcing traffic laws, providing additional income to the state in the form of commissions. Basically, every few years, the city hall accepts quotes from local towing companies for an exclusive multi-year contract for towing and impounding vehicles that are illegally parked on public roadways.

    The vehicle's owner still pays all of the impound fees but, in exchange for exclusive towing rights, the company pays the city a percentage of each fee. The bidding process, therefore, centers on the size of the percentage the towing company is willing to pay the city for each vehicle towed.

    Most commonly, a law enforcement official will take note of an illegally parked vehicle and report it to police dispatch. The dispatcher will contact the towing company's dispatcher who then sends a truck to the site. However,
    if an off-duty company tow truck drives by an unreported illegally parked vehicle, the truck can tow it away without orders from higher up.

Legal Issues

  • Although towing companies with city contracts essentially work as an adjunct to law enforcement, their employees are still civilians from a legal perspective. As such, they cannot carry firearms (concealed or otherwise) unless permitted by state law. And even though towing can lead to heated personal confrontations with the vehicle's owner, tow truck operators lack the important protections normally afforded to sworn law enforcement officials, exposing them to charges of impersonating police, wrongful arrest, assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping and various civil rights violations.

    Also, towing companies are only allowed to be proactive when dealing with vehicles illegally-parked on public property. If the vehicle is parked on private property (residential or commercial), then the owner or landlord of said property must request services and be present at the time of the towing.

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