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For too many stranded motorists, tow trucks mean highway robbery

'My beloved Audi broke down a few weeks ago at the set of lights 60 metres from my shop … it happened in front of a police cruiser who stopped to help me but he wasn't allowed to help me push it into the driveway. I attempted to call one of my tow companies that we deal with. but it was a Sunday and I couldn't get a hold of anyone. The police officer said he needed to get me off the road and if I couldn't arrange a tow he would have to call one, which I reluctantly agreed to."

My friend Lou, a mechanic, continues.

"Moving my car 60 metres cost me $450."

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It could have been worse. I call them preying mantises, those idle tow trucks sitting by the highway. Anticipating your bad luck so they can swing a hook and capitalize on you at your most vulnerable. Even a small crash or vehicle breakdown is alarming for most of us. We drive thousands of kilometres for years and often never experience anything going wrong; turn the key and go. So when that is tersely interrupted, our coping skills hit a tailspin.

But not to worry; an unregulated industry of people poised to take control of your compromised situation are never far from hand. Welcome to the Wild West: the tow truck industry in Ontario.

Are there any good guys out there? Absolutely, there are. But when there is no need to play by the rules – because there essentially aren't any – how long do you think it will take for the bad guys to run the town?

In a nutshell, anyone can be a tow truck driver. You, me, my recently G-licenced kid. This is unfortunate, because I like to think anyone who can drive away with what is probably your second-most-expensive asset should be trained, professional and bondable. But rules? What rules? Every municipality has its own set of bylaw regulations, and none of them mesh. A tow operator licenced in Oakville may be expected to follow that city's bylaws, but the second he's over the boundary into, say, Mississauga, all bets are off. And your wallet is open.

A fee to hook the car; a fee to move it even a few metres, like out of a live lane of traffic. A fee to travel a distance; a fee to get it to an impound; a fee to get it to a shop; a fee to take it off the hook. Storage fees, administration fees, fees, fees, fees. And I need payment before I'll unhook it, thank-you-very-much.

They're so much nicer at the moment you meet. Maybe you're sitting there, traffic whizzing by, when your white knight arrives. If you didn't call for this truck yourself, you are probably about to get ripped off. You can ask how much, but remember, there are no provincial rules in place. He will solicitously offer to take your car to a place he guarantees can take care of it. His guarantee has most likely been bought for anywhere between 15-25 per cent of the value of the repair, in cash. This is his buddy's shop, after all. But not to worry; his buddy will simply inflate the bill so that your insurance company covers it.

If he's really on the ball, he might even – surprise! – have a business card of a great lawyer handy. For you to get justice of course, from that insurance company. More bills are peeled off a wad at the lawyer's office. You want to know why our insurance rates have hit usurious levels? Follow the food chain from the crash to the payouts. With rogue towers, every step of the way there is money changing hands. Unregulated, unaccounted for, money.

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Well, shouldn't the police step in? I mean, they're right there sometimes, right? The provincial police are not out trying to enforce local bylaws, and that is the only thing governing tow truck operators. They want that stalled or wrecked car out of the way as soon as possible, and while they're good about letting you call the CAA to have the service performed, time is both money and safety and nobody can wait forever. Most police have a list of their own towing contacts, which is a layer of protection for the consumer but not enough.

A CAA membership is a hedge against this highway robbery. For 100 bucks a year, you'll get great service, including a specified amount of tows within a specified distance. Tow truck operators who are contracted by the CAA across the country give you a level of accountability not found with the preying mantises. The only catch? There may be a delay, as the CAA provides many services to its members, and attending collision scenes isn't its primary duty.

So what does the Insurance Bureau of Canada think of the towing issue? For Peter Karageorgos, manager of consumer and industry relations, the list is immediate.

"To start with, even those trucks just sitting there is a hazard. They're a distraction and they cause collisions," he says. How handy. I ask how the public, often traumatized or vulnerable when they need them the most, can protect themselves. The response is instant.

  1. Never sign a blank work order.
  2. Agree on a final cost of the tow before your vehicle is hooked. Get it in writing. Some municipalities are leading the charge, with Vaughan already having forms to handle this.
  3. Know where you want your vehicle towed to. While this might be difficult in some circumstances, give your routine a look, and ask yourself this question now. Familiarize yourself with possible dealers or shops that are on the beaten path for your daily trek.
  4. If it’s safe and you can, call your insurance company. Many have 24/7 phone assistance, and can help you with these questions.
  5. Listen for red flags. What reputable company will only accept cash, often hundreds of dollars?

Willowdale MPP Liberal David Zimmer introduced Bill 147 in 2008 to change this industry. And again in 2010. Despite party support, it stagnated.

Smarten up, Ontario. This isn't Dodge, and we're sick of getting robbed in broad daylight.

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About the Author
Drive, She Said columnist

Lorraine Sommerfeld began writing when she was about to turn 40, because it was cheaper than a red convertible. Her weekly column Drive, She Said, while existing in the automobile section, is a nod to those of us who tend to turn the key rather than pop the hood. More


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