Monday, April 13, 2009

More On "Predatory Towing" Legislation in OR

When you're stuck by the side of the road, few sights are more welcome than a tow truck. But towing companies are also in the business of towing cars that aren't broken down they're just parked in the wrong place. This so–called patrol towing is controversial. Oregon lawmakers are moving forward on a bill that's meant to cut down on the number of people who are towed against their will.

Nobody likes to have their car towed. That includes Chris Watkins. He says he made what turned out to be a $140 mistake when he was moving into a new apartment a few years ago:

Watkins: "Parked right up in the front in the fire lane, walked into my apartment, unloaded all my stuff, cracked open a beer, and watched my car go part the back window. Didn't do that again."

Watkins learned from his mistake. And now he's profiting from the mistakes of others. He's a driver for Sergeant's Towing, one of the largest patrol towing companies in Oregon. Patrol towing is when a property manager contracts with a towing company to tow vehicles that aren't properly parked. Some call it predatory towing because tow truck drivers are typically paid on commission. That gives them plenty of incentive to hook up as many vehicles as possible. That's how Chris Watkins makes money. He's putting his wife through grad school. And maybe it's because there's a reporter riding along, but today Watkins is taking it easy. He pulls into a lot and after a quick glance, he's on his way:

Watkins: "It's pretty easy to tell who belongs, because most of the people that belong here back their cars in so you can see their permits pretty easy, sticking right out."

But at another northeast Portland apartment complex, Watkins spots a car parked on the sidewalk. That's an obvious no–no, but just as Watkins backs up, the driver scurries out, keys in hand.

Watkins: "They know they're not supposed to but they'll just let it sit there until you act like you're going to do something with it, then they'll come running out. It's a game. Usually I end up winning, though."

Watkins says he's careful to tow away only legitimate targets. But advocates of stricter towing laws say not all drivers are so conscientious. Wally Duncan of Hillsboro is a typical example. He told a House committee about the time his son–in–law's car disappeared overnight from his Hillsboro apartment complex. Duncan says the tow truck company demanded a thousand dollars for the vehicle's return and eventually sold it at auction.

Duncan: "I fumed over this for six years just to be able to say something to somebody about it. It is a great relief."

Others testified with similar tales of woe. They hope a new round of regulations would put a stop to cases of wrongful towing. The measure they're pushing would require drivers to take photos of vehicles they tow to prove they were parked wrongfully. It would also make tow truck drivers contact a property manager before towing a car off their lot. But the measure doesn't go far enough, says anti–towing activist Sean Cruz.

Sean Cruz: "Until we have an end to commission paid tow trucks drivers deciding at the scene whether they're going to tow a vehicle or not, that problem is going to continue."

The bill did originally include a ban on paying tow truck drivers by commission. That was stripped out, along with a proposed two hour waiting period before a tow truck could haul away a wrongfully parked car. That idea didn't sit well with towing companies:

Preston: "My first reaction was, I laughed."

Steve Preston is President of Sergeant's Towing.

Preston: "The way it was written, anybody could park on anybody's property at any time for any reason for two hours, and not have to worry about ever being towed."

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Representative Chuck Riley, says the changes came after lengthy discussions with towing companies and property managers:

Riley: "We wanted to make sure that we solve the problems without actually causing any harm to the legitimate towers who are doing really important work."

Riley insists the bill still contains enough protections for vehicle owners. One Portland suburb has gone even further. The city of Fairview banned patrol towing altogether earlier this year. I'm Chris Lehman in Salem.

No comments: