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Tow the Line

City council considers restrictions on towing companies.

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Nobody likes a late-night game of "dude, where's my car?"

That's why Memphis city councilman Harold Collins is sponsoring an ordinance that will crack down on the practices of some local towing companies and establish a transportation commission to address citizens' concerns.

The proposed ordinance mandates parking limitations be posted in clear view on 17-by-22-inch signs that include the towing company's phone number. Currently, some local businesses contract with towing services but have failed to post signs or telephone numbers to help people locate their towed vehicles.

Cordova resident Vaughan Dewar maintains that adequate signage would have come in handy when his car was towed from a Memphis College of Art (MCA) parking lot during a show at the Hi-Tone Cafe in May.

"We saw an empty parking lot at MCA," Dewar says. "We looked carefully and saw that there were two or three spots marked 'reserved parking only.' In the rest [of the spaces], there were no signs [saying] not to park there."

But when Dewar and his friends left the show around midnight, they had a big problem on their hands. His car and the cars of four other groups had been towed from the MCA lot. The drivers had no idea what company was responsible since the few reserved parking signs didn't list a phone number.

"We didn't even know who to call or where to go," Dewar says. "Fortunately, one person in the group was an off-duty police detective, and she knew who to call at the station. She took the VIN numbers on several of the cars and narrowed it down for us."

PB&J Towing, the company responsible for the towing job, demanded $135 in cash before Dewar could retrieve his vehicle. When he arrived at the PB&J lot on South Main, there was no one available to open the gate. A phone call to the tow truck driver revealed that the only available staff had left for another pick-up.

"We waited about 45 minutes. It was not the most pleasant and safest place to loiter," Dewar says, adding that tempers were running high and a fight nearly broke out between two other groups waiting for their cars.

When the tow truck driver returned, one woman was told she'd have to wait even longer because her car had been taken to a holding station. Dewar's car was released around 2 a.m., and he asked for a receipt. He was handed a piece of paper with the name of the towing company and nothing else documenting the exchange.

"I have received emails and calls about tow trucks pulling people's cars without any reasonable merit," Collins says. "There are some tow truck companies that have agreements with apartment complexes, and if they see a car improperly parked or straddling the line, they have the ability to tow that car. And I understand that these companies can charge fees for the tow, for the storage. It's an exorbitant amount each day, like $150 a day."

Collins' transportation review commission would consist of three individuals: a police officer and representatives from a cab company and a towing company. It would give citizens a place to lodge a formal complaint, would hold tow truck drivers accountable, and would revoke licenses for illegal tows.

Currently, tow truck drivers are required by law to photograph vehicles before towing to show why the vehicle is being towed. If the owner of the vehicle arrives while his or her car is being loaded onto the truck, the driver must allow the owner to reclaim the car subject to a tow fee.

"In some cases, the towing company takes the car, charges you the tow fee, and then charges you the storage fee when you come and claim your car," Collins says. "It's car-napping."

Collins is confident the ordinance will pass. "It got a unanimous vote in committee," Collins says. "We're still working on the ordinance in committee until we get it to the floor for final vote on the third reading, but I think it will pass."

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