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Sticker Shock: Let’s set a balanced price for towing

Posted: July 31, 2018 by John G. Smith

Some of my earliest work experience came at the benches of a shop that repaired small appliances and vacuum cleaners. And a fond experience it was. Even when off the clock, I loved hanging around the area behind the counter. It’s where the owner’s aging friends would gather to chew the fat over some chewable coffee, and I was welcomed as one of them.

It’s also where a barely teenaged version of yours truly began to learn about the value of a job properly done. Handed a dead assembly of plastic, metal and wires, we assessed problems, replaced parts, and brought things back to life. The customers who walked through the door couldn’t do it. They didn’t have the tools, parts or expertise these tasks required.

That shop recently came to mind after I sat down with Guy Broderick at APPS Transport to discuss what clearly appears to be an unfair towing bill. (See Highway Robbery.) Specifically, I recalled a fading fax that had been pinned over the appliance shop’s counter. Work would come good, fast, and cheap, it promised – but you could only pick two of those at a time.

It’s the type of joke pinned to shop bulletin boards everywhere, and these days shared as internet memes. There’s also an underlying truth to it. When service is delivered well and quickly, it should be priced higher than a haphazard job or one that drags on well past a reasonable deadline.

This is certainly true in the world of towing. Not all service providers are created equal, after all. Some companies have made significant investments in the latest equipment, training and rotators, preparing for every conceivable job. Without such commitments, massive wrecks would litter highway lanes for much longer than they should; Toronto’s Hwy. 401 would begin to look like Fallujah. Proper equipment and training also help to limit the risk of making a bad situation worse.

These operations need to be compensated for their investments. So, too, do there need to be limits on how long police and traffic-jammed motorists should be expected to wait before stranded equipment is pulled out of the way.

But there also needs to be a limit on fees – especially when it comes to minor incidents in which fleets and owner-operators are forced to use the first tow truck on a scene.

Broderick shared the story of a bill that was more than four times higher than his preferred towing supplier would have charged. Given the nature of the work, the cleanup of a minor coolant spill and tow to a nearby exit, the $5,000 price tag was unusually steep. Prices should be based on work that is required, and not just the equipment that happens to be available.

So what’s the solution?

I usually loathe the idea of establishing common rates. In a free market, the right price is the one that people are willing to pay. Those who find efficiencies can tweak prices and establish a competitive advantage. But since we can’t expect police to shop for prices at the side of the road, and their responsibilities should remain focused on clearing lanes quickly and safely, it’s time for Ontario to cap the prices on minor tows meant to do little more than move stranded equipment off a highway.

Specifically, it’s up to the province’s revived quick clearance committee to recommend guidelines that make sense – taking steps to ensure towing and recovery operations are compensated, but also avoiding cases of sticker shock along the way.

 

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