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Towing Rates and Charges
No price control or regulation
There is no price control on the charges which breakdown operators may levy for the services which they provide - there are no regulated or recommended rates. (It is a contravention of the Competition Act for operators to collude to regulate their charges, or for a towing association to fix charges - free market competition must prevail.) In general, fees could be charged for a number of services, depending on the circumstances of the situation. Let's assume for the sake of simplicity that we are dealing with a standard passenger car which has been involved in a collision.
The most common fee is for towing a vehicle from the scene of a collision to a storage yard or repair facility, but some operators also charge a call-out fee to travel from home or place of business to the scene of the collision. If the operator's services are required outside of normal business hours, say at night or over a week-end, there might be a higher rate than would normally be charged during business hours.
Salvage & recovery charges
If we assume that the vehicle is on its wheels and needs simply to be hitched up onto a sling-back or winched up onto a rollback, the work is straight-forward. However, if the vehicle is lying on its side or on its roof or off-road in a donga or entangled in a fence or deep in sugar-cane or wrapped around a pole, the operator has to do additional work possibly with specialised equipment in order to recover the vehicle, in which case additional fees for salvaging would be charged.
Operators who are contracted to an insurance company or call centre typically charge according to a schedule of standardised rates which the insurer or call-centre are willing to pay. Insurance companies negotiate special rates with breakdown operators to keep the premiums affordable for policy holders.
On the other hand, if we are dealing with a commercial vehicle then, apart from what was discussed previously, there could be additional charges for disconnecting airbrakes and prop-shafts etc. Where the operator has to recover a multi-axle vehicle or a tanker with its load, there will be additional expenses for the salvage work. Charges are generally higher for commercial vehicles, both for time spent towing and salvaging, and also for fuel consumption. Big rigs are more costly to buy, run and maintain.
At the scene … not a perfect world
If the driver at the collision scene is able to contact two or three operators and ask them to quote on a particular job, the driver would get a guide to approximate rates and charges.
In a perfect world, charges would be negotiated between the breakdown operator and the driver or owner of the vehicle at the accident scene, so that they know what work has to be done by the operator and what the costs will be. In the ideal scenario, any competent operator would be able to explain what services would be needed by the driver, and what the costs will be. Keep in mind that there are no regulated or prescribed rates and charges, and in a free-market system the reality can be somewhat different from the ideal scenario in a perfect world. In many instances, the driver is in shock even if only mildly, and the ability to think clearly is impaired. Further, the majority of drivers do not frequently have accidents so the collision circumstances are unusual for most drivers and they are reliant on what they are told at the accident scene by the breakdown operator, traffic police and other officials. Drivers are not always given all the information which they might need, and they might misunderstand whatever information is given to them. Unfortunately, operators who are less than ethical will not provide all the information which should be given to the driver. Ideally, while on scene, the operator should give the driver a written estimate or quotation of the work to be done with the relevant rates and charges, but this seldom happens in practice. The reality is that the discussions and agreement are verbal and it is not unusual for costs to be added on at a later stage, causing confusion and unhappiness, especially when the operator activates a lien over the vehicle.
The operator's lien on a vehicle
In brief, a lien is a legal device which permits a repairer (or breakdown operator in this case) to retain possession and control over a vehicle until the expenses incurred by the operator have been reimbursed. Whether that reimbursement comes from the driver, owner, insurer or some other person is a separate matter. If, for whatever reason, the operator's rates and charges turn out to be higher than was negotiated or agreed at the accident scene, the driver or owner of the vehicle could find themselves in an uncomfortable position in which the vehicle will probably not be released until the operator has been paid - which brings us to the thorny topic of storage charges.
Storage charges are one of the more controversial issues in the world of towing. Strictly speaking, if storage charges are not included in the discussion and agreement between the driver and the operator at the accident scene, they cannot legally be added on afterwards without the consent of the driver. The reason for this is that the discussion between the driver and the operator at the scene of the accident constitutes a binding contract in law, the terms of which cannot be altered thereafter without the consent of both parties. The breakdown operator might just "get away with it" if the driver is warned that storage charges will be levied if the vehicle is not removed and paid for within a reasonable period of time. Most of the insurance company contracts provide for 3 or 4 days "free" storage to allow time for arrangements to be made. Breakdown operators who are unethical or uninformed could use the lien as an opportunity to add in and extort excessive storage charges from the driver. In the towing world, these charges are sometimes called "release fees".
The authority to tow
Another source of confusion and friction lies in the authority to tow. Once the breakdown operator has hooked up the damaged vehicle to his sling-back or begun to winch it up onto a rollback or started salvage work, he becomes entitled to a fee. It can happen that the operator commences work on the understanding that the driver has given authority for the work but the driver then changes his mind, or it might happen that the operator in his haste to get the job begins work or starts to remove the vehicle without the driver's permission. Again, in our imaginary perfect world, the driver would get as much information as possible, with as much clarity as possible, before authorising the towing or salvage work.
Tips for the motorist … at the scene
Anyone who is unfortunate enough to be involved in a vehicle collision, if able to conduct a sensible conversation at the accident scene, should take note of the following :
- If the vehicle is insured, contact the insurer.
- Get the driver's name, trading name & contact details of the breakdown operator.
- Know where your vehicle will be taken for repairs or storage.
- Get a written estimate on the costs to move and store your vehicle.
- If practicable, remove personal possessions and other loose items from the vehicle prior to towing.
- If possible, do not allow a breakdown operator to hitch or lift your vehicle until you have dealt with the previous items.
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