New state rules complicate towing in Montgomery

September 13, 2012

Montgomery County officials are scrambling to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to implement new state regulations aimed at protecting residents from predatory towing. But officials said Thursday that they are stymied by the guidelines because some of them conflict with county rules.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved towing regulations that in part set limits on fees and require wreckers to quickly notify drivers when their vehicles are towed. They were sponsored by Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George’s) in response to complaints of aggressive towing statewide.

Niemann could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he said in June that he intended that the law bolster Montgomery’s system, not complicate it. He said he wanted the provisions to help create the most protective system possible for drivers.

But county officials said that it’s hard to determine which provisions — the state’s or the county’s — are more stringent. The new state law would require larger warning signs to be posted in parking lots, but the county requires more information to be included on signs. County officials said it’s unlikely that they will be able to fully implement the changes by Oct. 1.

“It makes the complicated regulatory process even more difficult to enforce,” Eric S. Friedman, Montgomery’s consumer protection director, said of the guidelines at a County Council meeting.

At the hearing, county officials said the changes are a mixed bag.

One change provides protection for motorists in areas where towing isn’t regulated, such as Kensington and nearly all towns in the Chevy Chase area. Another change would force private towing lots to stay open 24 hours a day.

Some provisions seem like benefits for motorists but actually do little to protect them, officials said. For instance, the rules ban spotters — those who look for motorists violating parking rules in strip malls and other parts of the county. But Friedman said it would be all but impossible to enforce that regulation.

Also, officials said that other elements are bound to make towing problems worse in Montgomery. For instance, in areas such as Montgomery Village, residents have said they do not want towing signs visible, so county regulations have allowed them to post 48-hour warning notices on cars that violate parking rules. This gave drivers without permits a “cushion,” Friedman said.

But the new rules force the county to remove those 48-hour notices, he said. So on Oct. 1, signs would have to be installed in those areas and violators would be towed without warning, Friedman said.

“I’m thoroughly confused,” council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) told Friedman. “Good luck setting this up.”

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who held the towing hearing, said that the new law is well-intentioned but that “at least in the short term, there is a lot of confusion and conflict between the two laws.”

Towing companies have said they were unhappy with the regulations, partly because its fee limits were too low. Friedman said his staff is working with the two largest towing companies in the county — G&G Towing and Henry’s Wrecker Service — to determine how best to implement the law.

Few things rile up Montgomery residents more than aggressive towing. Friedman’s office has received hundreds of complaints on the issue over the years; 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles are towed each year in the county.

Recently, the council approved a $10 increase, to $168, on the maximum for towing a vehicle on private property, making it among the highest in the region.

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