Pennsylvania may regulate how towing operations unfold

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For Pittsburgh police, the rivalry among tow truck drivers has reached the point where fights at accident scenes are a monthly occurrence. But three months ago on the South Side, police Lt. Ed Cunningham told a state committee, competitive hostilities reached a new level when a driver pulled a gun on a competitor.

Cunningham and others testified about the need for statewide legislation to regulate tow truck drivers during a state House Democratic Policy Committee hearing Tuesday in Sharpsburg. They cited price gouging, unnecessary towing and making it tough for motorists to find their vehicles, leading to higher storage fees.

State Rep. Dom Costa of Stanton Heights, a member of the committee and former Pittsburgh police chief, has drafted a bill to require tow companies to register with municipalities where they want to work. Other elements would require police to call for a tow truck; dispatching tow companies on a rotating basis to stop them from competing at an accident scene; and allowing parking enforcement personnel to certify a vehicle is parked illegally on private property before it can be towed.

Cunningham said it’s not unusual for tow operators to rush to an accident scene before police arrive to pressure drivers to use their service, sometimes even if the vehicle doesn’t have to be towed.

“They do their intimidation tactics before we get there,” he said. “I would venture to say more than half of the towers are reputable businesses, but the others …”

In Philadelphia, towing companies have come under fire from the public and city officials for predatory practices, and officials have acknowledged a need for better licensing and record-keeping. In some cases, motorists and police have said, towing companies have posted “no parking” signs after the driver parked and walked away, or towed cars into illegal spots, then towed them.

Mayor Kenney signed legislation in January that prevents companies from towing vehicles from private lots and driveways unless the car has been ticketed by a city law enforcement agency.

Committee Chairman Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said any statewide regulations would have to strike “a delicate balance” to control bad operators without hurting reputable companies. John Halbleib of Halbleib Automotive in Hazelwood agreed, saying he doesn’t want his business, which employs more than 35 people, to be hurt because state law requires municipalities to rotate who can tow from an accident scene.

“We want to respond to accidents,” he said. “If my guys are doing something wrong, cite them for it.”

Costa said there is no timetable for introducing a bill.

As it is, there are few statewide regulations. Costa said the state can’t require uniform pricing because tow companies are private businesses, but he’s hopeful that requiring registration would shine a spotlight on them and get some to clean up their practices.

“[Those bad practices] are going to stop and there are going to be consequences if they don’t,” Costa said. “We want people to be honest, be professional, treat people well. We’re not looking to put anyone out of business. There’s plenty of work for everyone.”

Ed Blazina: or 412-263-1470.

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