Drivers feeling ripped off by unregulated tow trucks
There are more than 100 crashes on the Queensway each month, and some consumers say local towing companies are taking advantage of them because the industry isn't regulated.
Ginette Carrier is one of them.
The Ottawa woman was involved in a Queensway crash in late January. A Response Towing Company truck showed up at the scene in the eastbound lanes just past the Parkdale off-ramp, then towed her to a parking lot off the next highway off-ramp at Rochester, a maximum of 1.7 kilometres away.
When they got there, he told her the flat-rate bill was $275, plus taxes. And to take the vehicle to her home in Carleton Place, the driver said, would cost more than $500.
"My arms just totally dropped," Carrier told CBC News.
"I said, 'What? You've got to be kidding.' And he says, 'Well, that's what it is.' He says, 'I leave your car here.' And I was trapped. He says, 'You have to pay.'"
After paying the $310 dollars to Response, Carrier called CAA to tow her car to Maitland.
Driver didn't discuss fee beforehand
The driver didn't tell Carrier the fee before towing her, but that's not against the rules because there is no provincial oversight governing tow truck companies in Ontario. The City of Ottawa also doesn't regulate local towing companies.
"I didn’t have time at the time and the energy to start shopping around for who would give me the better deal, and I had absolutely no recourse because the OPP told them to remove the car," Carrier said.
Many tow truck companies contacted by CBC News said the base rate for clearing accidents is $275. That can go up depending on how far the vehicle has to be towed, what kind of equipment is needed, how long they have to wait at the scene and more.
Other kinds of tows can start as low as $65, depending on the type of vehicle you drive.
The owner of Response, Abraham Hanzeh, told CBC News the extra cost for highway recovery is due to the extra risk.
"Sometimes you do a recovery in the vehicle, sometimes it rolls over, sometimes … you do some work on a vehicle. Yesterday I got hit by a truck. I was winching somebody off the 416, we got hit. … So I put my life on the line, to help people at the same time, and at the same time, to operate my business," Hanzeh said.
Some tow truck drivers tell customers on the highway that they have contracts with police, and some companies even display that on their vehicles, but it's only true with Ottawa police.
Ottawa's Ontario Provincial Police, meanwhile — who are in charge of patrolling Highways 417 and 416, as well as Highway 7 — don't have any contracts with towing companies.
OPP do, however, get complaints about them.
"We do. We do get phone calls," said OPP Const. Rheal Levac.
Better Business Bureau, city also getting complaints
But Levac said police don't get involved because towing is a contract between the motorist and the towing company. People have the right to call whatever company they choose, but because the top priority for police is to get the highway clear for the safety of others, officers often give the job to the first truck that pulls up to the scene.
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And often, towing companies stage their vehicles on highway on-ramps to be able to respond to calls fast.
"The highway has to be open. We can't let lanes be blocked … because it's a safety issue for the motorists coming up from behind," Levac said. "There's no legal authority, there's no law … that limits how much they can charge, so the tow companies can charge what they want. There's no contract with us saying that it can only be a certain amount, and there's no legislation saying that, either."
OPP aren't the only people getting complaints about towing companies. The Better Business Bureau gets them too, as well as the City of Ottawa.
City staff working on towing report
One resident was charged more than $600 for a tow in 2012, and he complained to city Coun. Shad Qadri.
City staff are now working on a towing report to present to committee and council, which is expected in the second quarter of this year, Qadri said.
The provincial government, meanwhile, has no immediate plan to regulate the industry. In an emailed statement from the Ministry of Transportation, a spokesperson wrote that municipalities can decide whether or not to regulate the industry locally.
A private member's bill proposing self regulation was reintroduced to the province in 2010, passed first and second readings, then was referred to the Standing Committee on General Government, the spokesperson wrote. It hasn't moved forward since then.
A report by the Ontario Automobile Insurance Anti-Fraud Task Force was submitted to the province in October 2012, and it includes recommendations "to improve oversight and enforcement of tow truck operations in Ontario to reduce opportunities for fraud, exorbitant towing fees and inappropriate referral practices," the spokesperson wrote.
The province is now reviewing those recommendations.