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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PTROI Sues to Stop Tow Law in IL

Some more on the IL towing law from Phil Kadner's column in the Southtown Star:

Ask the government for a simple solution to a problem, and you inevitably end up with a bureaucratic mess.

Wreck-chasing tow truck firms have been charging motorists at accident scenes in Chicago $1,000 or more for a tow that should cost about $150.

I wrote a number of columns about this sleazy practice, and the state Legislature in the spring of 2007 passed a law creating rules and regulations for tow truck operators at accident scenes.

None of these rules regulated how much tow truck companies could charge because of federal laws that prohibit rate regulation.

The new law didn't take effect until July 1 of this year, giving the enforcement agency, the Illinois Commerce Commission and the towing industry, an entire year to prepare for the new law.

As I reported in an earlier column, by June of this year the ICC not only had failed to hire any additional police officers to enforce the law, but had yet to begin interviews for those jobs. But, I was told, the ICC was planning to do interviews.

Talk about waiting for a deadline. ...

On Tuesday, the other shoe dropped, so to speak.

I received a news release from the Professional Towing and Recovery Operators of Illinois, the "good guys" of the towing industry, announcing a lawsuit against the ICC.

I should point out that even the good guys of the towing industry didn't like the law very much because they were going to have to pay fees to implement the regulations.

If the Chicago Police Department had only stopped the pirate tow truck firms from operating on Chicago streets, the PTROI insisted, there never would have been a need for a new law.

That's right. But the fact is that Chicago turns a blind eye to these ripoff scams, and there's no indication that is going to change.

So the ICC began enforcing the law, and the good guys are screaming that instead of going after the bad guys, the legitimate tow truck operators are being ticketed and fined.

"While the state Legislature may have enacted the law with good intentions, the ICC has failed to enact regulations to administer the new law," the tow truck operators state in the news release. "For instance, the law requires the ICC to issue safety relocator registration certificates, but the ICC has failed to establish procedures for towing companies to obtain those certificates (despite having nearly a year to enact the regulations). Accordingly, towing companies are unable to comply with the new law even if they wanted to.

"Towing companies are also being issued heavy fines and citations from ICC police for failure to issue pre-tow disclosure forms to customers, even when the towing services is for an abandoned vehicle or initiated by a third-party commercial entity for warranty services on an automobile.

"In each instance, the owners of the vehicle are not present at the scene of the tow and the consent of the owner is not required."

The lawsuit seeks a court order to prevent the state from enforcing the law.

"The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 generally prohibits states from enforcing or enacting laws that relate to the price, route, or service of motor carriers," the news release contends.

In other words, the tow truck operators claim the state does not have the authority to pass regulations on towing companies.

The Illinois Attorney General's office, in the past, has taken the position that states are allowed to pass public safety laws and that towing accidents from the scene of a car accident is a public safety matter.

I'm no lawyer. I'm not a legislator.

And I am not a tow truck operator.

I'm just a newspaper reporter who knows a problem when he sees one.

Towing bills for more than $4,000 were common up until a month ago.

I haven't seen one since the new law took effect.

Some of the good guys in the towing industry tell me the wreck-chasers still are out there doing their thing, but when I've asked for copies of excessive bills, no one has supplied one.

The ICC refused to comment about the lawsuit, with a spokesman claiming a copy of the document (filed Friday) has yet to arrive at its offices.

So maybe the law is working, although it is difficult to understand how the ICC, with about a dozen police officers statewide (five assigned to southern Illinois), could be cracking down on the bad guys and still have time to write tickets on the good guys.

If a court does stop the ICC from enforcing the law, it will certainly bring a smile to the faces of the wreck-chasers.

But then those guys have made so much money off the misery of others that nothing is likely to remove the smirk from their faces.

Phil Kadner can be reached at pkadner@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-6787.

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