The return of winter to Ontario brings with it the busy season for heavy towing on the province’s highways. Dangerous conditions bring with them certain tow truck operators who see the lien provisions of the Repair and Storage Liens Act (RSLA) as a potential windfall from carriers anxious to have vehicles returned or face pressure from shippers whose goods are inside.
The cost of towing services is rarely negotiated beforehand, and invoices from some less-respectable actors — including substantial hourly minimums, and additional charges for administration and fuel surcharges calculated as a percentage of the hourly fee – can be shocking.
The RSLA includes provisions that permit a lien on vehicles until a bill is paid. As it stands, the only options for a vehicle owner are to pay the amount into court and seek to have the “fair value” of towing services assessed, or to pay the bill and attempt to recoup some amount through a legal claim in future. Neither option is quick and both can be expensive. Swiftly paying the invoice is the only surefire method to ensure vehicles and goods are rapidly released.
Recently, the province has moved to address excesses, introducing new registration and licensing requirements as well as the Tow Zone Pilot Program operating on 400-Series highways in the Greater Toronto Area. The pilot program sets rates and requires billing by the half hour according to a set fee schedule. As with many things in the province, there is one set of rules for the GTA and another set everywhere else, but this distinction may be fading.
Towing and Storage Safety and Enforcement Act
The latest provisions of the Towing and Storage Safety and Enforcement Act (TSSE) come into effect Jan. 1, 2024 and will further protect those requiring tows. One component of this is the related Charges for Towing and Vehicle Storage Services, which requires tow operators to submit their maximum rate schedule to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and to make that rate available on their website (where the company maintains one).
The regulation also includes rules outlining what must printed on invoices, including the legal name and address of the company and its tow certificate number. This is an important development because the name on the invoice or the truck has not always aligned with the operator’s corporate identity. While the regulations under the TSSE do not establish set rates like the pilot program has, they establish criteria for determining a “reasonable amount”. These include the services charged in the area, the time and labor expended, and critically the amounts charged under the Tow Zone Pilot Program. These new requirements should curb the worst excesses of tow operators seeking inflated fees and unreasonable hourly minimums, hoping that the lien provisions of the RSLA will encourage prompt payment.
A crucial caveat is that the fee rules in TSSE regulations do not apply to towing services provided under an agreement between tow operators and the Crown. This includes the OPP Tow Program, which already includes a pre-authorized fee schedule, and the MTO’s Provincial Highway Incident Management Limited Financial Protection Program or Heavy Tow Program. In the latter case, tow operators who are called out by police to clear accidents submit their invoices to MTO. Like the OPP program, these tow operators must submit their fees for approval in advance. The MTO then assesses the reasonableness of the invoice and pays the tow operator. The province collects the resulting debt from the party whose vehicle was towed.
While these regulations do not provide the certainty of the pilot program’s set fees, they are important steps in curbing the sometimes scandalous invoices that appear from time to time on the province’s highways, and may encourage a more reasonable approach to invoicing by companies tempted to pad their bottom lines with the help of the RSLA.
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