WRECKED: Vehicle towings take a huge toll on America's poor.

AuthorKuhlenbeck, Mike

Mary Lovelace was living in Brentwood, California, and working as an interior designer. As a home-improvement specialist, she would drive a minimum of 365 miles every day in her car, carrying samples including doors, windows, and hardware in the trunk and backseat.

"Then the recession hit, between 2007 and 2009," Lovelace recalls. "It kept getting worse and worse." Fewer people were hiring interior designers, and eventually Lovelace was laid off. She received unemployment, which wasn't enough to cover her rent after other expenses. She tried without success to find other work. She was eventually evicted from her rented house. A friend in nearby San Francisco let her stay in his garage. She parked her car across the street.

Parking tickets began to accumulate on the car. Some tickets, she says, listed the wrong address, a block and a half from where the vehicle was parked; sometimes the dates did not match. After a while, the car was "booted"--a metal device clamped on the wheel to render it immobile.

"I tried to fight it," Lovelace says. "They wanted an astronomical amount of money for booting my car, the tickets. They gave me three weeks to get my car." Because Lovelace was unable to pay, her car was sold at a lien sale, in which towed vehicles are auctioned off to collect debts from owners.

"You have this hopelessness and you really feel like giving up," Lovelace relates. "You lost your job, you can't work or apply for the job you used to have, because your car has been booted and towed. You don't have the money to buy a new car. They don't give you a payment plan or options. You can't even appeal the tickets if they're bogus."

In fact, millions of Americans have their vehicles towed every year for nonemergency reasons, including unpaid tickets, expired registration, and parking for periods of longer than seventy-two hours. These are what are known as "poverty tows." The result for individual car owners can be devastating.

Vehicle ownership, for many Americans, has become key to financial security. When vehicles are hooked and hauled away by tow trucks, also called wreckers, people lose more than a machine. They lose their transportation to work, the bank, the grocery store, and the doctor's office. In graver circumstances, they may even lose their homes.

Nearly 50,000 towing businesses operate in the United States, according to the business market research firm IBISWorld. They have already generated more than $8 billion in revenue so far this year, compared to $7.4 billion in 2018. Ideally, towing is used for emergency or safety reasons and to prevent further harm. These include tows for vehicles obstructing the flow of traffic or blocking driveways and access to fire hydrants. They are also used in cases of stolen vehicles and nontraffic-related crimes.

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association surveyed 448 member company employees who handle towing cases in its "2018 PCI Towing Survey Analysis." It identified excessive rates and fees as "the worst problem insurers and consumers face with towing companies," citing excessive daily storage rates, release process issues, and practices "that make it difficult to recover a vehicle or even gain access in order to get personal effects or commercial cargo."

The survey ranked the cities of Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as the states of Texas, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, and New York, as being the "most in need of pro-consumer towing reforms." But these practices are not unique to these cities and states.

Rather, they are reflective of laws and practices across the nation that prey on the poor and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. A case in point: the state of California, number three on the survey s list.

In March...

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