Seattle to watchdog tow-trucks, cap fees, hire tow-truck tsar

Jul 30, 2012

A single tow-truck charge of nearly $800 made headlines last winter. Now, Seattle leaders are proposing rules that would keep most impound charges under $200.

The city also will create a new inspector's position, to serve as tsar of tow-trucks.

It applies to private lots and people who park too long, or don’t pay, or park in a reserved spot. Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata says even if it was the driver’s fault, “that does not give the towing company the right to basically take their car, and then charge an exorbitant amount to get their car back.”

Currently towing companies can charge as much as they want, if you’re towed from a private lot. The $800 impound in Seattle prompted state lawmakers to take a look, but the state House and Senate couldn’t agree on rules.

Proposal: $156.75

So, Licata and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn have a proposal that sets a standard fee, of $156.75 per hour, plus extra for storage and mileage.

Towing companies wanted nearly double that, to cover their expenses, says Licata. He says they couldn't provide evidence that they needed to charge that much.

"We asked them for some additional information, to ask them how they got to that $300 or whatever they wanted, and they really don't have much in the way of ‘books,’ or at least they couldn’t share it with us,” he says.

On city streets, from No Parking zones, contracts with towing companies limit the impound fees in Seattle to $105.

Licata says the details in his proposal are copied from a law in Portland, where the rules were upheld in court.

Seattle would also require:

  • background checks for truck operators;
  • operating and conduct standards, such as prohibitions against operating without a license or driving a truck when unfit;
  • personnel who are available to the public 24x7 to release an impounded vehicle;
  • posting appropriate signage regarding fees and redemption procedures; and
  • complaint investigation procedures.

New licensing fees from towing companies would pay for a new chief towing inspector, and an assistant, to enforce all the new rules.

The Towing and Recovery Association of Washington issued the following written statement:

"We are disappointed with the proposal released today to fix prices for towing services in Seattle.  This was done without any third party study of the actual costs of operating a towing business and we believe it is contrary to State law.  Illegally parked cars on private property are a major problem in any city and limiting the ability of landowners to secure their removal will only make the situation worse.  We will be evaluating all our options, legal and otherwise, to determine how we will respond."

The proposal still must go through the normal process of committee hearings and testimony, before a vote can be taken this fall. If approved, it would take effect next January.