When Heather Healy's 18-year-old daughter smashed her Toyota into a telephone pole in Potomac last October, she immediately rushed to the accident scene. After comforting her and dealing with the police, Healy asked the tow truck driver, from Mid-County Towing & Recovery of Germantown, to take the banged-up car to a nearby repair shop instead of the company's more distant lot.
That decision cost her $500.
Under Montgomery County rules, drivers pay $75 when police tell a towing company to take a wrecked car to the firm's lot. But when an owner asks that a vehicle be taken to an alternative location -- like their home or a repair shop -- private operators can set prices as high as they want. Under federal law, the county can only regulate the cost of police-ordered tows.
"I got gouged," says Healy, 47, of Rockville. "The tower knew this loophole and said to me, 'I can charge you whatever I want because I'm unregulated.' "
The county is considering revisions to its towing policies, in part to close that loophole. Under the proposal, tows to a company's lot would cost $95. It would also cost $3 per mile on top of the $95 fee to have a car towed to a home or repair shop.
Montgomery County council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the public safety committee, which oversees towing regulations, said he has a simple way to get around the legal barrier: have police officers tell drivers they can have their cars towed to their home or a repair shop, instead of the tower's storage lot. The officers would then tell the tow truck where to go, ensuring that it remains a police-ordered tow with regulated fees.
"We need to ensure that consumers are not subject to the potentially unlimited charges of a private tow," said Andrews, whose committee will discuss the revisions in the fall.
Tow truck operators say the proposed changes are unfair.
"The $95 fee is arbitrary and capricious," said Jack Hessman, general manager of Automotive Support Towing & Recovery in Spencerville. "Was there any cost analysis done? Does anyone on the council know how much it costs to run a towing company? Even rural Frederick County charges $125."
Hessman added that the proposed regulations "are chasing a few bad apples" when the more pressing issue is management of accident scenes. He said tow service would improve if the county provided monetary incentives for quick response, allowed trucks to use HOV and bus lanes, and gave operators access to county traffic cameras to determine the quickest routes to a scene.
If towers don't like the rules, council officials said, then they don't have to register to do police tows.
"This is a voluntary program," said Linda McMillan, senior legislative analyst for the public safety committee. "It is very appropriate that we set the rules."
Healy finally recouped some money from the towing company six months after the accident. Once she threatened to take the firm to court, the owner agreed to a partial refund.