- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

A towing company in Arlington that has been fined for overcharging said yesterday county officials should increase towing prices as they seek to change a federal law to allow localities to prevent towing companies from taking advantage of drivers.

George King, owner of Frank’s Towing, said the county should increase the towing-price cap to $140 from $95 per car so companies can cover inflation and rising business costs. He also said the county should create a board that will review the decade-old price cap and hear complaints from car owners and towing companies.

“It’s costing me more to tow a car today than it was 10 years ago,” Mr. King said. “We’re just trying to make a living. It costs a lot of money to operate. One-hundred-forty dollars is about how much we should be getting, if not more.”

Mr. King’s comments come after The Washington Times reported yesterday that Arlington County officials are trying to put regulatory power back in the hands of municipalities.

Currently, the law allows municipalities like Arlington to enforce a cap on towing fees, but they can’t stop towing companies from treating drivers poorly.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, plans to introduce a bill this year that would allow localities to demand from towing companies a “minimum level of decency and responsibility to the public.”

“Tow-truck companies have become the epitome of bad business,” Mr. Moran said.

Towing operations are also a problem in the District, where city officials have been working for more than two years to curb towing abuses. The D.C. Council tomorrow will hold a hearing on new rules that would allow the Metropolitan Police Department to regulate towing yards, equipment and prices.

The federal government in 1995 eliminated the Interstate Commerce Commission, which allowed localities to regulate every aspect of the towing industry. The next year, the government allowed localities to regulate only towing prices, not industry practices.

Since then, Arlington residents have complained about predatory practices, such as towing companies searching for cars to tow and overcharging, said Mary Alice Gray, team leader of the county’s Consumer Affairs Office.

The county found that towing companies sometimes charged more than the state limit, $85 on weekdays, $95 at other times.

Mr. King said the decade-old price caps are unfair and don’t take into account the increased cost of fuel and towing equipment. He said the advent of all-wheel drive cars also has changed the industry. He said it costs him more in manpower and equipment to tow such cars, which require a flatbed trailer.

The county also found that some towing companies refuse credit cards. Mr. King disputed those complaints, saying all towing companies in Arlington take credit cards.

Mr. King’s company has been the subject of complaints in Arlington. A county judge on Dec. 3 ordered Frank’s Towing to pay $2,800 in fines and give refunds to 26 car owners it had overcharged.

Frank’s Towing is one of about a dozen towing companies operating in Arlington. The companies have contracts with property owners — like shopping centers or apartment complexes — to tow cars that are parked illegally.

Cars towed after accidents are handled through the police department, which contracts with towing companies through a bidding process.

In addition to the price increase, Mr. King wants the county to form a towing board that would be made up of county and police officials, towing company operators and an independent lawyer who practices outside of Arlington.

Mr. King said the board should mediate any complaints, come up with a fair-market cap for towing prices, and review the prices regularly.

“I’d like us all to work together,” he said.

Ms. Gray said if the law is changed, the county might consider forming a board to regulate the price. But, she said, such a board would likely recommend the price be lowered.

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