Tow-Truck Drivers Say They're the Real Victims

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 7, 2010

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Private tow-truck drivers are fed up with an ever-changing web of inconsistently enforced city regulations. They’re angry about the constant specter of the Philadelphia Parking Authority threatening to elbow in on their business. And they’re pissed off that media always portrays them as the bad guys.
One operator thinks he has the solution. “We need to stand on each other’s shoulders,” says West Philly tow baron Lew Blum. “We need to organize.” Blum is moving to create an association of at least 30 to 40 towers to pool resources, delve into bare-knuckle City Council politics, fight back against the PPA and improve the image of private tow in Philadelphia.

The notoriety of the towing industry is likely to grow even greater with the October debut of the show Wreck Chasers on TLC, which follows several Philly tow drivers around the city as they cruise for accidents. Undeterred, Blum brushes aside concerns that city residents might find a monolithic association of private towers more terrifying than reassuring, and thinks his association can push back against the bad press. “We need to let them know that private tow is not the problem,” he says. “We can take out ads in newspapers.”

Operators think if they have a chance to tell their side of the story, the public wouldn’t be as inclined to demonize the industry. A number of tow-truck companies were the subject of consumer complaints in PW’s Aug. 25 cover story (“Off the Hook: How the City Lost Control of the Tow-Truck Industry”). But from the perspective of the companies, they aren’t the offenders but the victims, forced to deal with abusive, irate and mendacious people coming to retrieve their cars.

Mike Otterson II of South Philly Towing rattles off a list of ways he’s been abused by car owners. “I’ve been chased down the street by dogs,” he says. “I’ve had guns pulled on me. Once, a whole bar emptied out and came after me when I was hooking up a car.”

Blum says his organization can help by educating members on how to obey city regulations and deal peacefully with angry car owners. The body would be self-policing, he says. “We’d have rules, regulations and a code of ethics,” he says. “We would have the right to discipline towers or suspend them.”

Besides a kinder, more gentler towing industry, Blum has bigger plans in mind—namely hiring a lobbyist to convince City Council to pass less restrictive laws on the industry, including upping the fees companies are allowed to charge. And if lobbying is unsuccessful, the association will try its hands at politics directly. “We need to put a guy in office,” Blum explains, figuring association members can use their contacts with business owners citywide to run campaigns and get tow-friendly candidates elected to Council.

Blum’s eventual goal is even more ambitious: To take on the PPA. Operators say it’s unfair the PPA doesn’t follow the same laws as private towers; for example, private operators must mark their territory with a 36-by-36 inch sign complete with name, phone number and address before they can tow a car, whereas the PPA tows from streets marked with nothing more than diminutive “no parking any time” signs. And a law awaiting Mayor Nutter’s signature could open the door for the PPA to ticket and possibly tow off private property, long the domain of private tow drivers. Blum wants to fight back, and even go so far as to wrest the contract for towing cars from public streets away from the iron grip of the PPA. “We would attack Parking Authority,” he says. “Private tow has more tow trucks, flat-beds and land than Parking Authority. We can make a bid on Parking Authority’s contract.”

The prospect is unlikely, says PPA spokesperson Linda Miller. “There is no bid for that,” Miller says about the PPA’s task of towing cars off city streets. “That’s per City Council legislation. They’d have to change the legislation.”

This isn’t the first time trouble with the city has prompted tow drivers to organize. In 1992, the Philadelphia Towing and Collision Association formed and successfully lobbied City Council against passing a “rotational towing” list aimed at putting a stop to tow trucks from racing to accidents scenes to solicit work. However, the association unraveled soon after due to expense and lack of interest, and the rotation list eventually became law in 2005. South Philly owner Mike Otterson Sr. says there was at least one more attempt over the years at a unified towing organization that didn’t pan out.

One organization does exist in the city, the Philadelphia Authorized Towers and Salvors Association. With 11 members, the group focuses mostly on stolen and abandoned vehicles, while working with the city to refine the rotation list, which still isn’t working as advertised. However, relations seem chilly with the Towers and Salvors and other companies. Blum danced around questions about why he wasn’t interested in trying to join the existing group, and Towers and Salvors spokesman Joe Parente declined to comment on the potential for a new organization. “Our guys are good towers,” Parente says. “We don’t want to get our names even slightly associated with anyone who’s not doing anything the proper way.”

There is a statewide group, the Pennsylvania Towing Association, which helps towers navigate bureaucracies and regulations. However, only four Philly-based operators are listed as members, and Otterson Sr. says companies from outside the city the tend to frown on rough-around-the-edges Philly towing.

That leaves Blum’s new group—if it ever gets past the planning stages. Blum says he is lining up support and already has a handful of other operators on board, but those contacted by PW either declined to comment or took a wait-and-see attitude.

“So far nothing’s become of it,” says a representative from Siani’s Towing in North Philly who gave his name as Red. “I’m not really sure about it at this point.”

“I would be receptive,” Otterson Sr. says. “Everybody wants to talk about it.” However, he says he’s skeptical about putting up money for lawyers and lobbyists, having seen towing associations form and fail in the past. “I don’t feel confident that companies can stick together,” he says.

Despite doubts, Blum says he’s pushing forward. “We need allies,” he says. “Right now we’re running around like goddamn chickens with our heads cut off.”

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