“It’s a Wild West situation out there on that highway,” says Sgt. John Winter, a police officer who runs Toronto’s towing impound program. “The consumer definitely does not come first.”
There is no shortage of horror stories. Among the cases in Nelson’s files is a woman who was picked up on the 401 after crashing in Whitby, only to have her car towed more than 70 km. After the crash, the woman told the tow truck driver to take her car to a nearby GM dealer. Instead, he towed it to Mississauga, where a body shop paid him for bringing in business. When the woman found out where her car had gone, she ordered the towing company to return the car to the Whitby GM dealer. The company complied, but refused to release the car until it was paid $2,400 for the two-way trip across the GTA.
Then there’s the case of Dennis Ablett, an IT executive whose son and daughter both had minor accidents near their home in Thornhill back in 2010. The accidents happened just days apart, and an odd choreography was repeated at each scene: Ablett arrived to find a damaged car, a distraught child, and a tow truck that had magically appeared, even though no one had called for one.
In both cases, Ablett told the drivers that he was a CAA member and would wait for a tow, because the cost would be covered by his membership. The drivers told Ablett that the scene had to be cleared, so he couldn’t wait. When Ablett asked what it would cost, the drivers told him not to worry, it would be covered by his insurance. Both cars were towed less than 10 km. The bill for one car was $1,400, and included fees for towing, storage, and crossing a municipal boundary (the bill was later reduced to $1,080). The second bill was for $610.
“I had no idea that anyone could try and charge that much for such a simple service,” Ablett says. After seeing the bills, Ablett sent a letter of complaint to Kathleen Wynne, the provincial Minister of Transportation at the time, writing: “I suggest that if such imaginative, inflated and usurious rates were charged in any other area, the police would swoop in and arrest the perpetrators for criminal activity.”
Among those pushing for industry reform are Ontario’s police chiefs and the PTAO, a group of tow operators who believe that the business needs to clean up its act before public outrage leads to draconian legislation.
George Gladish, a former police officer who works as an investigator with the IBC, is amazed at the overcharging and scams he’s uncovered. “Kickbacks have been going on forever,” he says. “They’re built into the game.”
Joey Gagne, owner of Abrams Towing, which operates 150 trucks, is frustrated by the under-handed tactics of the roadside pirates: “It’s hard to get people to come into the industry because of its image,” he says. “That’s unfortunate, because there are good people here. Having a negative experience with a tow operator is no different than having a bad experience at a restaurant. There are bad waiters, and there are bad tow truck operators, too.”
Although the fraud cases drive up the cost of insurance, the most obvious annoyance for the average driver is a lack of consistent pricing, and towing bills that can hit the roof.
While researching the industry for his private-members bills, Zimmer says he saw towing charges that reached $3,000.
“There’s a lot of anger toward the industry,” he says. “And it’s easy to see why. A lot of consumers have been abused.”