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PHILADELPHIA -- Every year, millions of Americans have their cars towed without their consent from private property or a public street. While getting towed is a justified consequence of parking in the wrong place or for too long, most states don’t offer drivers the decency of basic consumer protections such as access to their wallets or medicine, or maximum rates for towing and storage. And that doesn’t even take into consideration those times when drivers believe they’re towed improperly.
“It seems like everyone has a story of a run-in with a tow truck. When your car gets towed, everything else grinds to halt,” said Grace Brombach, U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Consumer Watchdog Associate. “Not only have you lost your primary mode of transportation, but you’re also trying to locate your vehicle and you’re worrying about mounting daily storage fees. It’s essential to know whether you’re being treated fairly or whether the tow company is acting in a predatory fashion.”
U.S. PIRG Education Fund has identified 14 common sense towing protections that should be available to consumers in every state, and researched which states offer those safeguards. Our report, Getting Off The Hook of a Predatory Tow, outlines protections ranging from who is responsible for damages caused by careless towing, to the maximum rates and fees owed when towed, to whether you are guaranteed the option to pay by credit card. You can find out which states offer which protections using our search-by-state tool on U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s site.
Our research points to two broad issues facing consumers: First, an alarmingly high number of states have no protections spelled out on towing issues. In addition, too many states have inadequate protections, or the laws on the books are vague and inaccessible to the average consumer. It’s important to note that many municipalities have protections that are stronger than those offered by state law. Some cities have even adopted their own “towing bill of rights” to address years of abusive practices. This shouldn’t be necessary; drivers in every city in a state should have the same, strong rights. This needs to happen.
Across all states, here are the key takeaways:
Maximum Rates: Only 23 states have set maximum towing rates and 24 states have maximum storage fees for non-consensual tows.
Driver Notification: In 37 states, the towing company must notify the owner/driver that their car has been towed and where it’s being stored.
Release for Incomplete Tow: Tow drivers in 18 states must release your car at no charge or for a smaller “drop fee” if you return to your car before it has been completely removed from the property.
Access to Personal Items: In 20 states, the towing storage facility must allow you to access all personal items from your towed vehicle, Nine states only allow the retrieval of emergency items such as medication.
Reimbursement for Illegal Tow: If you can prove that your car was towed illegally, you are eligible for a reimbursement in 27 states. In 17 of those states, you are entitled to damages in addition to reimbursement.
U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful interests that threaten our health, safety, and wellbeing.
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