Pirates In Tow Trucks

Our View: Excessive City-approved Fees Give Companies A License To Print Money

April 19, 2009

Motorists who return to where they parked only to find their cars have been hauled away by a towing company that will charge them hundreds of dollars to get their vehicle back are understandably apt to feel as if they've been robbed. No wonder Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran has called the towing business "legalized vehicular piracy." He's proposing a $250 limit on charges by towing companies that haul cars from private lots and a five-year moratorium on future increases in impound fees.

People whose cars are towed usually have little choice but to pay up or lose their vehicle, regardless of whether they were legally parked or not. It's a system ripe for profiteering; the least the city can do is put some limits on the potential for abuse.

Until last week, companies could request fees of up to $410 for so-called trespass tows that remove vehicles parked on private property. For violations that occurred on public property, the city's tow board, which approves towing fees, had set rates ranging from $250 to $350. But those already stiff fees went up on Wednesday under a new towing contract approved by the city Board of Estimates. Under the contract, "trespass" towers can ask for fees up to $460 per tow - all of which is pocketed by the towing companies, not the city.

If that sounds like highway robbery, it is - except that it's all perfectly legal. Even some tow truck operators think the fees are excessive and say they won't oppose capping the rate. But others say they'll just find more cars to tow to make up the difference.

Admittedly, there are places around the city where motorists, unwittingly or not, take advantage of private property owners by parking cars without permission. Owners should be able to deter violators by having the vehicles towed. But that's not the same as giving towing companies a green light to seize and hold anyone's car for a king's ransom, as the latest rate increases threaten to do.

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