The Douglas County district attorney urged the Douglas County Commission to do something about the over-the-top prices some tow companies are charging motorists.
“We’ve got a situation that is currently untenable,” said Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson. “You are asking consumers to play Russian roulette with their pocketbooks every time they get towed.”
Branson’s pleas for action were echoed by towing companies.
“We agree something needs to be done with the pricing going on because it is not right,” said Troy Gentry with 19th Street Tow and Recovery.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the County Commission said it would form a committee of county and city officials to look at ways to better protect customers from outrageous towing bills.
“This is a topic that has caused people to stop me in the streets,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said.
At a scene of an accident, motorists can choose whatever towing company they want to haul their vehicle away. But if the owner doesn’t have a preference, the county’s emergency dispatch will choose a company based on a rotating list of about 10 different towing companies.
The Lawrence Journal-World recently reported about one Douglas County resident who paid $1,110 for a minivan to be towed six miles after an accident.
“There is such a disparity in what is going on here, it cries out for attention, and action needs to be taken,” Branson told the commission.
Legally, the district attorney’s office is restricted from pursuing consumer protection charges, and the 1995 federal Motor Carrier Act prohibits governments from putting limits on the price, route or service of towing companies.
County staff proposed several ways to help alleviate the problem. One would be to follow the example of the Wichita Police Department, which hands out a pricing sheet to help motorists choose which towing company they want to use.
Law enforcement could also treat every tow from an accident as one where the customer doesn’t have a preference and then use towing companies that have entered into a contract with the county. That contract could include a set pricing agreement. This is the method being used by Lenexa and Overland Park.
County counselor Evan Ice recommended that instead of having the County Commission pass an ordinance, the sheriff’s office should adopt a policy to provide pricing information at the scene of accidents.
At Wednesday’s meeting, representatives from towing companies agreed that something needed to be done but weren’t quite sure if the county had the right policies in mind.
Gentry said that it would be hard to set one price on a tow because the kinds of accidents and locations can be so different.
“Some accidents are simple and take five minutes. Some are very bad and take two hours to do,” he said.
Jerry Taylor with Hillcrest Wrecker and Garage believes the county needs to set higher standards for getting onto the rotation list. Right now, Taylor said, there are companies on the list that are out of business or some that only do jump starts.
In the more than three decades that Taylor has been in business, there has typically been just three or four companies on the rotation list. Today, he said, there are nine of them.
“What it does for those of us trying to make a living at this, when you go from four on the rotation to nine, now you have less business and exorbitant prices to stay in business,” he said.