Tough haul

Policy, paperwork and procedures weigh heavily on today's towing companiesIf you want to get R. Scott Albrite hot under the collar, just ask him to describe Virginia's policies and procedures for towing abandoned cars. "The biggest problem tow truck operators have is junk cars," he says.President of Scottie's Wrecker Service, Manassas, Va., Albrite explains that when the state police call him to remove

Policy, paperwork and procedures weigh heavily on today's towing companies

If you want to get R. Scott Albrite hot under the collar, just ask him to describe Virginia's policies and procedures for towing abandoned cars. "The biggest problem tow truck operators have is junk cars," he says.

President of Scottie's Wrecker Service, Manassas, Va., Albrite explains that when the state police call him to remove an abandoned car, he has to store it on his own property at his own expense. Before contacting the last owner, he's required to fax the information on the police ticket to the Virginia Dept. of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

"Since the vehicle information didn't come from DMV to begin with, I can't use it to try and track down the owner right away," Albrite explains. "I can't call DMV to verify it, either. I have to wait for them to approve the information on the ticket and fax it back to me. And if I don't get the paperwork back within 15 days, I'm in violation of the law - even if DMV is the holdup. On top of that, I have to pay for the information. When it comes to getting rid of junk cars, it's a bureaucratic nightmare." The only way he can get a "storage" fee is if the owner wants the car back.

According to Harriet Cooley, executive director of the Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA), this is a problem shared by tow-truck operators throughout the country. "Towing companies are told by law enforcement to get rid of abandoned vehicles, but then they're stuck with them for months at a time," she said. "Plus, every state and locality has a different twist on the policies and procedures towers must adhere to for abandoned cars, including how long they must keep them before they can get rid of them."

TRAA is trying to get the federal government involved by lobbying members of Congress who are working on the National Salvage Consumer Protection Act. Although the current legislation doesn't deal with abandoned vehicles per se, TRAA is trying to bring the "tower's plight" to the attention of lawmakers.

"They want to protect the citizen from me, but not me from the citizen," adds Albrite. "We're cleaning up the streets for the state but aren't getting paid for everything that's involved. In addition, the bureaucracy prevents us from resolving the situations quickly."

One reason the abandoned vehicle issue stirs up such strong emotions is that for the most part the towing industry is comprised of small, family-owned companies that can't afford to have capital tied up like this.

According to TRAA, of the 35,000 or so towing companies in the United States, 85% are light-duty towers with vehicles under 10,000 lb. GVW. The average towing company employs just four or five drivers.

Albrite's seven-vehicle fleet is comprised of two traditional wreckers that use rear-mounted booms to tow vehicles behind them and four "roll backs," or flatbeds. The flatbeds tilt down and use a winch system to put vehicles on the truck, taking them completely off the road surface. A light-duty pickup equipped with toolboxes provides roadside mechanical service.

All of Albrite's tow trucks are International 4700s equipped with 6-cyl. in-line diesel engines. Total fleet mileage is just shy of two million.

Fourteen people - ten drivers and four office personnel, including Albrite - make up the work force. They're on a rotating shift system so the business is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. "Last year I closed for two hours on Christmas Eve so we could have a holiday party," he said. "That's the first time we've ever been closed."

Albrite and dispatcher Dave Sharp field between 50 and 65 phone calls a day. He uses NexTel phones and pagers to stay in touch with his drivers, rather than the CB radios still favored by some of the more old-fashioned towers in his area.

The pace is hectic, with Albrite and Sharp coordinating the location of customer calls and doing paperwork at the same time. "I literally sit here all day," he said. "It's the only way to successfully run my business."

Driver training is another matter. Having people who know how to drive a truck is one thing; turning them into efficient tow truck operator is something else entirely.

New drivers typically ride shotgun with a veteran to get a handle on the equipment, the operating environment, and how to interact with customers. Recently, however, Albrite pulled his best driver, nine-year veteran William Quinn, out of his truck to put him in charge of driver training.

"I hate to do it because he's my best guy and has a great personality," says Albrite. "But we want to make sure we can give new drivers more training and support."

On a much broader scope, TRAA is also working to improve the quality and professionalism of tow-truck drivers through sponsorship of a national certification program. Some 6,000 have already been certified and TRAA's Cooley hopes to raise that total to 10,000 by the end of the year.

"It's a voluntary program, but 18 states are helping us get drivers in and get certified," she says. "The program not only improves driving skills, but also improves the image and safety focus of our industry."

Changing landscape Towers used to make most of their money from state police contracts and motor clubs such as AAA. This is not the case anymore.

Albrite's main business now comes from auto shippers - companies that pick up and deliver personal cars across the U.S. for people who are moving or who've purchased vehicles in a different part of the country.

"We act as a terminal for Dependable Auto Shippers," says Albrite. "One of their tractor-trailers will back into my storage lot and unload a bunch of vehicles. Then we do the final delivery to the owner."

Albrite will deliver and pick up vehicles as far west as Martinsburg, W. Va., as far east as Ocean City, Md., north just past Baltimore, and as far south as Fredericksburg, Va.

"It's my best business," he adds. "If I had one more customer like Dependable, I wouldn't do anything else."

Motor clubs are no longer a good source of income for a towing fleet because they reimburse towing companies about 50% less than market rates. They also demand a one-hour service window, which can be tough to meet on today's congested roads.

By contrast, auto shippers set up two-hour service windows, providing much more flexibility. "They also pay decent rates -- a good 50% more than motor club calls," Albrite says.

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