Predatory towing helps keep people locked in poverty, discourages people from patronizing businesses, and sometimes leads to violence. To combat these and other problems, local leaders should work to find parking solutions and crack down on rogue towing companies.
Increase Parking Options
- For starters, local leaders should work to ensure an adequate supply of parking. While this might require the construction of additional parking structures, more efficient usage of existing parking infrastructure might sometimes be all that is needed. For example, the parking lots of big box stores, malls, shopping centers, houses of worship, and government facilities could be hugely useful to neighborhoods with chronic parking problems. To encourage parking lot sharing, local governments could offer to cut the taxes or water bills for businesses or nonprofits that allow the general public to use their parking lots. Chambers of commerce and business improvement districts should also help solve parking problems by arranging for payments to be made to any business that shares its parking lot with neighboring businesses.
Rein in Rogue Towing Companies
Predatory towing companies often justify towing cars with flimsy or fraudulent excuses, such as an expired sticker, a flat tire, a hidden sign, etc. To reduce such tows, local governments should implement the following regulations.
- Localities should prohibit the towing of cars for at least 15 minutes after they are parked. That should allow enough time for visitors to get any needed visitor passes, for drivers to move their cars after learning they have parked in the wrong lot, for delivery drivers to drop off food or packages, etc. without having their vehicles towed.
- Localities should lower the maximum fees that tow companies are allowed to charge for towing and storing cars as low as legally possible.
- Localities should require towing companies to take time-stamped photographs that clearly demonstrate that a vehicle was parked improperly – and furnish these photographs to car owners upon request.
- Localities should prohibit the towing of cars over expired inspection or registration stickers.
- Residents of multifamily housing with disabled vehicles should be warned and given at least two weeks to repair, store, or sell their disabled vehicles before localities permit them to be towed.
Reform Towing Advisory Boards
Virginia law requires that localities that wish to regulate trespass towing must establish towing advisory boards, which make recommendations to local elected officials on towing rates and other towing-related issues. State law also dictates that the public is to be represented by only one member of these boards. Meanwhile, the law calls for the towing industry and police to have an equal number of members on these boards. The boards vary in size, but towing companies and the police typically have one to three representatives each. In other words, the towing industry has at least as much say on these boards as the public, and it often has a much louder voice.
- Until the legislature addresses the inherent unfairness in the composition of these boards, it is very important that local officials choose towing advisory board members carefully. Representatives of tow companies with lousy Better Business Bureau ratings should not be allowed to serve on towing boards, and any presently serving should be removed. Right now, representatives of towing companies with F ratings from the Better Business Bureau serve on towing advisory boards in Arlington, Prince William, and Norfolk. The public should be represented by a competent advocate for the interests of the general public who has no ties to towing companies. Finally, local officials should appoint police officers to these boards who will not rubber-stamp whatever the towing industry wants.
- Local governments should also improve towing advisory board transparency. Board meeting minutes and membership lists should be posted on local government websites. Membership lists should indicate whether board members represent the public, the towing industry, or the police and for which company the towing industry representatives work. Currently, this information is often difficult to find.
When large numbers of vehicles are being towed over alleged parking violations, it should be viewed as a failure of community leaders. By implementing these eight policy ideas, local leaders can help reduce the harms caused by predatory towing and demonstrate that they are on the side of the public.
Richard McCarty is a native Virginian who works at a think tank in Northern Virginia and serves on the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee.