WASHINGTON STATE

Washington State House Democrats

HOUSE DEMOCRATS

Legislature approves nation’s strongest state law curbing predatory towing

It’s on to the governor’s desk for legislation aimed at preventing citizens from being slammed with charges up to $2,000 to get their car back after it’s towed by a predatory-towing company.

Sponsored by state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle/Lake Forest Park/Kenmore (46th Legislative District), the legislation “will put an end to predatory-towing practices which have been forcing people to pay up to $2,000 to get their car back, or lose their car, after parking in the wrong private-parking lot or parking space.”

The Senate today unanimously passed the measure, which earlier this year was approved by the House, 91-7. Pollet’s bill now goes on to the governor’s desk.

“No one should have to choose between being able to pay rent or paying a towing company to get the family car back after making a simple parking mistake,” Pollet emphasized. “We documented people being charged more to get their car back than a court could fine them if they had been convicted of a misdemeanor crime. But parking in the wrong spot is hardly a crime!

“It’s high time for us to end this practice, which so frequently results in rapacious, sky’s the limit costs for towing from private lots,” said Pollet, who has worked more than a year to round up widespread legislative support for his proposal.

Pollet thanked both the city of Seattle and the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington for supporting this bill, “even though they’re in court over a Seattle ordinance seeking to set a similar cap on towing rates for private lots. Indeed, for most tows in Seattle, the difference between the city ordinance and the statewide cap will likely be $3.¬†While state law has a rate set by the Washington State Patrol for tows from along highways based on a cost-study, current law allows a towing company to charge anything it would like for tows from private-parking lots.”

Under House Bill 1625, an in-city tow of 45 minutes (including half-day storage) should cost only $213 for a person to get his or her car back. Most in-city tows take under 45 minutes, and often only 30 minutes.

The legislation sets private-property tows at 135 percent of the State Patrol’s rate, which is based on the cost for an easy freeway tow (e.g., the car isn’t difficult to pull up to, and impounded cars are always there when the WSP calls for a tow). Tows from private lots are often more difficult and take more time than towing from a highway-shoulder.

It will be illegal for a towing company to charge for two or more hours for a tow that takes 30 or 45 minutes, as was the situation in one infamous Seattle case for a tow that cost $800.

“A rate cap is needed because we have a classic case of market failure,” Pollet said. “There is no willing ‘buyer’ to negotiate or seek the best rate when your car is towed from a private lot. The problem requiring this legislative fix arose because decades ago, the Legislature allowed towing companies to charge any rate they wished, so long as they filed the rate with the Washington State Department of Licensing.

“In recent years, some towing companies have used this ability to charge extortionate rates to operate solely on towing from private lots.”

The bill does not pre-empt Seattle’s ordinance if it is upheld in the on-going court challenge. The city also explored flat fees adopted in other cities, but concluded that such fees would not work in Seattle based on actual costs. Flat fees adopted by cities cannot work statewide because some tows in rural, or even suburban areas may take more than an hour, while the in-city tows take less than half an hour.

Pollet explained that his motivation to protect consumers from predatory towing came about when “I first became concerned with predatory-towing companies before I was elected to the Legislature.

“There was an incident when I came out from picking up one of my children from child care. A mom had parked her car and ran in to pick up her children in order to avoid the child care’s $10 a minute late-fee for picking up one’s kids. When we came out, her car had been towed by a predatory-towing company. There we stood, with three children, no car seats for two of them, and having to go pay to retrieve her car. It cost her hundreds of dollars. No parent or anyone else should face the choice of a month’s rent or mortgage payment to get back their car they need to pick up their children or get to work.”

Pollet said that after he introduced the measure, “I was contacted by scores of people who have been towed and charged from $500 up to $2,000 to get their car back after a simple parking mistake.

“I want to thank the numerous parties who have come together to pass this strongest statewide bill in the nation against predatory towing, including towing companies that didn’t want their reputation tarnished by unscrupulous competitors. I also want to thank the city of Seattle, and the leadership of the Transportation Committees in the House and Senate.”