Complaints about towing companies piled up in 2010, after then-City Councilman Doug Shields called for city residents to share problems.
Among the complaints Shields received: A tow truck driver took a woman to an ATM to withdraw $300 so her vehicle wouldn’t be taken to the impound lot. A family told of coming to town for a Pirates game and returning to an empty parking space, with no signs in the lot telling them who to call about retrieving it.
Pittsburgh resident Gary Van Horn complained at the time that a tow-truck driver tried to charge him $900 for towing and storing his car after he had an accident and asked that his car be towed to a specific auto-body shop. Van Horn filed a police report and the amount was reduced to $200.
“This was purely aggressive towing,” he told PublicSource. It was “taking advantage of the situation.”
Each towing business was following its own set of rules, said Shields, who represented District 5 until 2011. So he wrote the 2010 ordinance in an attempt to use business licenses to make the rules uniform and the companies accountable.
The bill was to regulate operators who tow cars that have been parked in a restricted area, not those who tow a vehicle at the owner’s request after an accident.
“The business license was a common-sense response to citizens being preyed upon by unscrupulous operators,” Shields said. The city issues other professional licenses, including those for electricians, general contractors and pawnbrokers.
Getting a license would require tow-truck drivers to provide their drivers’ licenses and business owners to provide proof of insurance, tax identification and access to company business records. The records would show whether they were adhering to the maximum towing charges and accepting credit cards as well as cash.
The 2010 law gave the enforcement job to the Department of Public Safety. The licenses were to cost $100, and $50 to renew annually.
The ordinance said that before a car could be removed from a private or restricted lot, towers would need a signed and time-stamped request from property owners, and that there must be signs in the lot warning of the tow risk.
In addition, tow-truck drivers could not tow a vehicle if the owner showed up before it was connected to the truck. If the motorist was too late, the tow companies would have to notify police of the towed vehicle’s location through an online program run by the Department of Public Safety.
An unenforceable rule?
Council unanimously passed the bill in April 2010 and Ravenstahl signed it. But Shields says the mayor’s staff soon after told him it was not a priority.
Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said Pittsburgh
Police Chief Nate Harper said the law was “unenforceable.”