Drivers in Montgomery County could pay as much as $61 more to get their ride back if their vehicle is towed, thanks to a new state law.
Under a provision in Maryland’s new towing law, towing firms can recoup the actual costs of meeting the law’s mandate to send out written notice to the owner, any secured party, and the insurance company within three days.
Eric Friedman, director of the county Office of Consumer Protection, said towing companies have begun charging as much as an extra $61 for sending that notice.
Friedman’s office estimated the average tow to cost about $168 in Montgomery.
But that has gone up thanks to the law that went into effect last October by Prince George’s County Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier, Friedman said.
“It’s clearly a case of collateral damage and unintended consequences,” Friedman said of the companies using the law to charge more. “[Niemann] was trying to fix something in Prince George’s County, but nothing was broken in Montgomery County. We had a system that worked. He did not realize or know it would have a negative effect on Montgomery County.”
Trespass towing — towing vehicles from private lots that violate posted parking restrictions — can be lucrative.
Estimating as many as 30,000 tows a year at a conservative $150 per tow, trespass towing rakes in an estimated $4.5 million in annual business for Montgomery tow-truck operators, Friedman said.
As a result, Montgomery suffers with predatory trespass towing, where “spotters” are paid to watch private lots or tow truck drivers wait for someone to park in a private lot and violate posted restrictions.
“These are typically those shopping centers where the towers find it most profitable to lie in wait, to just hide at the location, and if they see a violation, even if momentary violation, they will swoop in and tow the vehicle,” Friedman said.
In some cases, the Office of Consumer Protection has learned of people towed as quickly as within a few minutes.
To prevent predatory tow-truck companies from using state law as an excuse to charge even more, Friedman said he is hopeful that Niemann will consider amending the law, including changing the requirement to send notice.
Niemann said requiring the notice prevents instances where people don’t know their vehicle has been towed and report it stolen. But in Montgomery, most vehicles are picked up within 24 hours and tow-truck drivers are simply using the requirement to charge more, Friedman said.
“I think we are going to revisit that issue,” Niemann said. “Just to limit the tacking on of big charges.”
Not only has the new state law allowed tow-truck operators to charge more, but because the county has had a local towing law since 1988, it has also created confusion as to which law applies and when, Friedman said.
Portions of the state law allow for more stringent local law, where it exists, to be exercised.
Still, Montgomery would like to be waived from the state law, Friedman said.
Only about three jurisdictions have any kind of significant regulation for towing, and Niemann said he does not plan to consider exempting any jurisdictions from the state law.
While Montgomery’s was one of the more complete statutes, the state law “has frankly much more teeth to it,” he said.
Unlike Montgomery’s towing law, which allows civil citation be issued to violators, the state law requires police to issue criminal citations.
Violators must also appear in District Court, and if they fail to do so, their licence can be suspended, Niemann said. If they fail to pay any required penalty, repayment or restitution, they can also face jail time.
Friedman said he has only heard of one citation issued by police for towing in Montgomery since the state law went into effect.