Trouble with towing

Adam Milasincic

It’s expensive for the car owner as well as the towing company

Apartment complexes and other areas around campus use towing companies as a way to enforce parking regulations. Parking violations are more frequent on the weekends and later in the semester after students have received multiple tickets. PHOTO ILLUSTRATIO

Credit: Steve Schirra

Sometimes a speeding ticket is a blessing in disguise.

Motorists who dispute police-issued traffic citations have automatic access to court hearings, where they may state their cases to a judge.

That’s not the case when vehicles are towed against an owner’s will. Vehicle owners who say their cars were wrongly impounded have little choice in paying up.

A mishmash of state and local regulations govern the fee-structure and conduct of towing companies, but the bottom line is “pay now and complain later,” according to regulatory officials and towing industry insiders.

“I do think that it’s very expensive when somebody gets towed, especially for a person with a limited income,” said Chief James Peach of the Kent Police Department.

“But some of that probably is a lack of accountability on the part of the person who parked the car.”

When a vehicle is removed from a private tow-away zone such as a restaurant or apartment building, towing companies may charge up to $90 for the tow fee and up to $12 per 24-hour period the vehicle is in storage. Those costs are capped by the Ohio Revised Code, which also specifies that tow-away zones must be marked with 18-by-24-inch “no parking” signs at all entrances.

If police order a vehicle removed from municipal property or right-of-ways, fees of up to $85 for towing and $12 for 24 hours of storage are allowed under Kent ordinances.

VIDEO: The ins and outs of towing

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“I wouldn’t want to see people running to the police department every time they have a towing bill that’s high,” Peach said, “but if you think there’s been a crime, obviously you have a right to look into that.”

Short of alleging fraud, vehicle owners also can request mediation from the Ohio Attorney General’s office. Most complaints come from car owners who weren’t aware they had parked in private lots, said Shawn Peterson, who leads the attorney general’s consumer protection division.

Each complaint is referred to a mediator, and the office contacts both parties to achieve a mutually agreeable settlement in cases where violations are found, Peterson said. Most issues are resolved through this informal process.

“If we find that conduct is outrageous or is targeting vulnerable populations, or if the violations are large dollar amounts, we’ll refer it to investigation and litigation if needed,” Peterson said.

Some towing companies locally and across Ohio have attempted to augment the fees permissible under state law by collecting surcharges for “after-hours” vehicle pick-up. Companies that engage in involuntary towing are required to make vehicles available for release 24 hours a day, but regulations neither allow nor prohibit fees beyond $90 and storage.

The towing industry advocated the creation of flat fees a decade ago to ease public concerns about possible profiteering, said Ted Durig, president of the Towing and Recovery Association of Ohio. He advocates increasing the maximum tow fee — perhaps to $115 to address gas costs and inflation — but he said some state regulation is proper.

“It has to be fair to both sides,” he said. “We as a towing association have pushed to have this law put in place so it would relieve this anxiety that people have that there are a few bad apples in every bushel.”

While towing companies often are villainized, consumers typically don’t understand the cost of towing a vehicle, Durig said. Cars and trucks manufactured since 1979 are equipped with locked transmissions and steering mechanisms. Since companies don’t have access to keys when towing an improperly parked car, the process requires more time and, in some cases, an expensive flatbed truck.

Contact public affairs reporter Adam Milasincic at [email protected].