The Ontario government has assembled a task force to look at overhauling the province’s towing industry, in response to a deadly tow truck turf war that has plagued the Greater Toronto Area for close to two years.
The details of the task force are to be announced Monday, according to a senior government official with knowledge of the announcement. The goal is to look at how best to regulate the industry, said the source, who The Globe and Mail is not identifying.
Consultations with towing stakeholders will take place over the summer, the source said, and regulatory changes could start being rolled out as early as the fall.
The commitment to exploring a provincial licensing framework marks a significant shift for the Ontario government, which in January told The Globe that was not on the table.
A Globe and Mail investigation published in February revealed that a deadly towing war has been playing out across the GTA for the past two years, as companies compete for bigger slices of a lucrative segment of the industry known as collision towing or accident “chasing.”
At least four men with ties to the towing industry have been killed since December, 2018. A law firm was run out of town after its office was twice set on fire, and then shot up in broad daylight. In the past six weeks, four police officers have been charged with towing-related corruption including accepting kickbacks.
The government source said Sunday the province’s position on the need for reform changed when the extent of the violence became clear.
A joint forces police operation led by York Regional Police was launched in February to crack down on the violence and organized crime within the towing industry. Since then, roughly 30 people have been charged as part of Project Paramount, and investigators say they expect to charge at least another 20.
The provincial task force, which has already begun to meet, includes representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police and the ministries of transportation, solicitor-general, government and consumer services, municipal affairs and housing, finance, and labour, training and skills development.
Tow trucks are licensed at a municipal level – though, of the province’s 444 municipalities, fewer than 20 have any such system at all. The patchwork means a driver working across the GTA, for example, would require a different licence for each community they hope to work in. The rules are not only overlapping and contradictory, but are also all but impossible to enforce on provincial highways.
The lack of provincial regulation has also meant there is no provincewide training or safety and equipment standards, and no standardized complaints process – making it difficult for consumers to know who to trust, or who to go to with problems. In addition to licensing, the task force will also explore things such as background checks in an effort to tackle fraud within the industry.
It’s common knowledge in the towing industry that some peripheral businesses such as body shops, rental car companies and physiotherapy clinics will pay tow truck drivers to bring them business. As a result of these kickbacks, a single car can yield thousands of dollars, so “chasers” are racing each other to every job, with confrontations erupting into arguments and fist fights and even stabbings and shootings.
In order to address the “chasing” element, the task force will be looking at a potential remodelling of the current “first-on-scene” rule, which rewards tow truck drivers for being the first to a crash.
Stakeholders who have long been calling for this rule to be done away with have previously told The Globe that this could be done through contracts, or a vetted towing rotation list.
The government source said Sunday that specific details of the province’s plans remain up in the air – for example, whether reforms will come through legislative or regulatory changes.
A previous provincial towing task force, assembled close to a decade ago, concluded in a 2012 report that there was “increasingly premeditated and well-organized [fraud]” in Ontario’s auto insurance system – particularly in the GTA. Two key recommendations out of that report were provincewide licensing and regulation through an administrative authority.
In 2015, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government passed legislation to provide some checks and balances to the industry, such as requiring towing companies to give price lists and quotes to customers. The Wynne government also made it mandatory for all towing companies to obtain a commercial vehicle operator registration or CVOR certificate, which can be revoked if enough infractions are accumulated.
But stakeholders have dismissed those solutions as toothless and difficult to enforce under the patchwork system.
“You know what happens when they [rack up] too many points?” OPP Inspector Doug Fenske previously said of the CVOR system in an interview with The Globe. “They close the company and open the next day under another name.”
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