The terrible reign of the parking lot pirates may be about to end.
And you won’t believe which swashbucklers are eager to rescue the nation from the metal jaws of predatory towing companies.
Yep. Our normally dysfunctional House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a transportation bill Thursday morning that — among tons of other things — lets local governments go after the tow truck operators who have picked many families’ pockets.
You know which tow truck operators I mean, right? The hated kind.
The ones who snag your car during the three minutes you ran into CVS to pick up a prescription.
The ones who make millions of dollars baiting deserted parking lots and using spotters at all hours of the night to tow you away.
The ones who hold your car hostage for more than $100 in towing and impound fees.
The ones who hooked a car with kids inside in April.
The ones who have towed cars with dogs inside.
The ones who get taken to court and rarely pay more than a $125 fine when a judge finds that they improperly and illegally seized — and damaged — your car.
Yeah, those guys.
They have no mercy, and their victims can be anybody.
Um, everybody, actually.
“Lots of members of Congress were excited about it,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who co-authored the amendment with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Getting towed is a very non-partisan experience.”
Van Hollen knows the experience too well.
“I was at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, literally ran in for takeout,” he explained. His car was towed in “less than 90 seconds,” he said.
In his neck of the woods, Montgomery County, that tow will add at least $150 onto whatever errand you were trying to run. Expensive moo shu.
Van Hollen said these kinds of tow guys have turned it “into a science,” with an empty parking lot becoming a “cash cow.” It’s one of the biggest complaints his office gets.
“We didn’t have trouble signing up people,” said Van Hollen, who has been trying to thwart the parking lot pirates for years and may finally be successful with this bill.
Of course, it was Congress that gave the pirates their opening years ago.
A loophole in a 1994 federal law forbade local jurisdictions from doing anything to regulate these guys.
So they saw the opportunity and created a cottage industry of spying on people on empty lots and towing them minutes after they leave their car.
ESPN reporter Britt McHenry had her car towed while she was eating dinner in Clarendon. She was famously caught on video ripping into the cashier when she went to pay them off to get her car back. She was suspended by ESPN for a week.
I was just as angry a couple of years ago when they hooked us after we pulled up near a condo in Clarendon to load a piece of furniture into our minivan.
It was less than 10 minutes, flashers on, sign on the windshield explaining we’re loading and will be right back. It was late at night in front of a dry cleaner that was closed. And it was gone, sparks flying as the undercarriage slammed on the ground and the truck fishtailed away.
Mind you, these aren’t the merciless guys who tow your car parked in a no-parking lane on one of the District’s main streets one minute into rush hour.
Those guys are brutal, but they serve a purpose. One illegally parked car can be like metal cholesterol, clogging up a city’s thoroughfares for blocks and blocks.
The parking lot pirates? A lot less noble.
They lurk in cars and tow your vehicle even if you’re a customer of one business, then walk 200 feet to use the ATM at another. Show them your receipt, they won’t care.
The online complaints about them are outrageous.
One guy was towed exactly one minute after his gym closed. Another was towed because a condo placard was on the left side of the dashboard instead of on the right. And another was towed even though she was parked perfectly legally. And that was just this week.
They’ve been doing this for years.
The late musician Steve Goodman sang about the notorious Chicago towing company with similar tactics back in the 1970s in “Lincoln Park Pirates,” made famous by columnist Mike Royko:
“We plunder the streets of your town
Be it Edsel or Chevy
There’s no car too heavy
And one one can make us shut down.”
Beyer remembered that song, and so did many of his colleagues when he and Van Hollen asked for support of their amendment.
The ability to let local jurisdictions control the tow companies — to forbid their use of spotters, to cap what they can charge, to require a business owner to sign and approve each and every tow before it happens — is in the amendment to the $340 billion highway and transit bill that the House passed 363 to 64 on Thursday.
Now we wait for the Senate to pass the bill.
Do senators get towed and feel the pain, too?
Pirates, get to work!
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