Tow truckers: They’re not all bad guys

by Ingrid Phaneuf

TORONTO, Ont. – Any fleet owner who’s received a towing bill for one of his trucks knows recovery can get pretty darn expensive.

But few know exactly why.

Speakers at the Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminar got the opportunity to inform delegates of exactly how recovery, costs and subsequent billing procedures break down, and give the lie to the popular image of all tow truck operators being “vultures” looking to cash in on the misfortunes of others.

First up on the topic at this year’s seminar was Brian McLaughlin, a senior constable with the Ontario Provincial Police RIDE Unit, and a specialist in collision investigation.

McLaughlin walked CFMS delegates through what happens once police arrive at a collision scene.

“We don’t call them accidents,” McLaughlin emphasized. “Because an accident implies the collision is something that isn’t anyone’s fault.”

Once a technical traffic collision reconstruction expert is called to the scene, the scene belongs to the police and the police alone, said McLaughlin. Investigators request resources, which sometimes includes towing (if the fleet doesn’t already have an ongoing contract with a truck tower, or if one has not already been contacted), assess the situation, remove immediate dangers (which means the truck may be towed to the side of the road), interview witnesses and suspects, including the drivers, record the scene, gather and seize evidence (which can include the truck) and finally release the scene, including the truck to the tower once they’re finished with the investigation.

Truckers would do well to have all their documentation ready when police arrive, said McLaughlin. And they’d also do well to be driving trucks that were in good, safe driving condition before the crash, hauling legal weights distributed correctly.

Once the documentation and vehicle is checked, investigators proceed with collecting short-lived evidence (e.g., vehicle position, debris, road marks, etc.). Only after this has been done do police allow the vehicle to be towed to a secure facility for further examination. Police usually will obtain a warrant to do so.

Then investigators conduct an analysis, recreating the incident using physics and information they’ve obtained from the drivers involved. This is what allows them to determine the causes of the incident.

What can a trucker do to help speed things along?

Well first, if they are in good enough condition to do it, they should contact their dispatcher, superior or insurer, to let them know that an insurance adjuster is required at the scene immediately.

The sooner the insurance adjuster gets there, the better, speaker Paul Beard, an adjuster with AZ Claims Services Inc., told delegates.

“A claim that is not reported on time, denying proper investigation, can cost up to 48 per cent more to resolve,” according to a recent study, said Beard.

The key to reducing cost is to have a response plan and make sure your trucker knows what it is.

“A plan is only as good as its weakest link,” said Beard. “Most of the time that is the communication between the driver and the trucking company, after a loss has occurred.”

But the driver can also be the company’s strongest asset when it comes to reducing recovery costs, especially if he snaps photos and interviews witnesses immediately after the crash, before police investigators and insurance adjusters have time to arrive.

Insurance companies can educate your drivers about how to respond in the moments following a collision, Beard said.

Drivers should also know that the OPP is mandated to ask the truck driver whom they want to respond for towing and recovery, said Beard.

Which is why developing an ongoing relationship with a particular towing company is a good idea, said Doug Nelson, president of the Ontario Recovery Group and former owner of the Northland Truck Centre in Bracebridge, Ont.

Nelson gave a breakdown of costs and time association with towing and recovery, as well as an overview of the towing industry.

“The industry is shrinking,” Nelson told delegates. “We’re facing a serious staff shortage, due to early burn-outs and concerns with the perceived image and reputation of towers.”

But towers are not the “vultures” many perceive them to be, said Nelson.

“The industry today is very capital intensive,” he said, meaning costs of towing are also driven by the costs towers must face themselves, including, the cost of new equipment to tow the latest trucks and the cost of insuring the towers themselves.

Costs are also driven by whether the fleet owner can or can’t make an informed decision about which tow firm to hire. Sometimes, police will call the most readily available tower at hand, which is the source of many problems for the industry, explained Nelson.

Police are not concerned about the cost of making the tower wait while they investigate the scene. Nor are the towers able to wait for hours without getting paid.

Secondly, an unknown tower will not be able to offer the advantages of one who is known to the fleet owner.

And thirdly, the fleet owner may object to paying the tower he or she has not called, which is a major source of costs to the towers, sometimes necessitating that the tower go to court to get paid.

Calling a tow company with whom you have a relationship is also key to reducing time-related costs, Nelson added.

For example, a known customer can more easily be fit into a tower’s schedule, cutting wait times. An emergency tow call demands an instant response, interrupts the tower’s schedule and may require specialized equipment or specially trained staff that the tower does not necessarily have available immediately. These sorts of complications can result in some pricey wait times.

Again, companies can reduce their costs somewhat by planning ahead, said Nelson.

Making sure their vehicles are easy to tow or knowing what kind of specialized equipment is needed to tow them can help. Having a driver on the scene who knows who to contact and when also helps.

And when the bill finally arrives, fleet owners shouldn’t be surprised by what they see on it, said Nelson. Police, ambulance and fire department personnel all charge extra if required to remain on the scene for safety reasons. Fire departments can currently charge up to $500 per hour per truck, and police can charge up to $46 per hour plus cruisers.

Fleet owners should also be aware that tow companies are privately, not publicly funded, but are obliged to respond to emergency calls from police. That means if the fleet doesn’t have insurance or the owner declares bankruptcy, the tow company doesn’t get paid.

Capital investments also play a significant role in cost, said Nelson.

He gave a comparison of operation costs for towing companies in 1961 as compared to today.

In 1961, a heavy duty tow truck cost about $12,000. Today it could cost between $250,000 to $650,000.

Drivers earned up to $1.25 in 1961, while today they earn up to $45. Fuel cost .26 cents per gallon in 1961, compared to $4.13 per gallon (.91 cents per litre) now. And that’s not even covering the cost of special permits now required by all levels of government, sometimes on a one off basis to haul overweight in a municipality, and always for operating permits on highways throughout the year.

Never mind the special equipment and staff required for hazardous materials recovery.

Clean-up costs may be covered in the towing bill if the fleet owner hasn’t already engaged an environmental cleaner. There’s storage too, as well as fees for lane closure (extra police).

In other words, the cheapest part of the invoice you get may in fact be the part that covers the actual towing.

All this to say that towing isn’t something that comes cheaply, and often for good reason.

Still the overall cost of towing can be reduced, said Nelson, who shared a few tips.

Expensive low slung bumpers on some trucks make them harder to tow, h
e said.

Make sure your truck has tow pins or receivers, and standardize them so they all have two proper receivers at the front of the truck. This eliminates the need for front axle connections, and the need to remove driveshafts or axles.

Install independent air and electrical access points at the front of vehicles, for total control of all brake and light functions.

And build stronger trailers, added nelson, so that they won’t be structurally damaged in a rollover or when police insist they be towed on their sides to the shoulder because they are blocking traffic.

The future could very well see this happen said Nelson.

“Loads will be left in the ditch,” he said.

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