The World of Towing in Hawaii
Tow This: It’s a necessary part of city life, but it’s also one of the most hated. A look into the rough-and-tumble world of towing.
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To Drop or Not to Drop
Because of the involuntary nature of many kinds of towing, the industry is strictly regulated. State law dictates the maximum rates that a towing company can charge, and there are numerous requirements designed to protect consumers.
One of the newest towing protections has turned out to be a controversial one. In 2008, the state Legislature passed a law addressing one of the most frustrating experiences in towing: the scenario in which you catch a tow-truck operator in the middle of hooking up your car. Tow operators used to be able to charge a fee of $50 or more, and the late-night, on-the-scene negotiations with surly operators were notoriously stressful.
Under the revised law, if you show up while your vehicle is still “on the scene,” the tow truck operator is required to unhook it, without charging you.
It was a step forward, but, three years later, there are still tow-truck operators extracting drop fees from car owners who don’t know any better.
David Richardson, a local wedding photographer, recalls parking on a side street behind American Apparel in Waikiki a year and a half ago and returning to see his car jacked up on a tow truck. “I asked the two guys if they could take it down, and they said no,” he says. “I asked if I could pay them money now, to save them the trip. They said, no, we already did all the paperwork. I was persistent, and finally the guy said, All right, give me $80 and I’ll take it down. I figured it was better than paying $150. I didn’t get a receipt or anything—I kind of figured I was bribing them. I didn’t know about the law.”
Even among tow companies that don’t resort to illegal charges, there’s a lot of disagreement as to what exactly constitutes “the scene.” Many tow-truck operators argue that once they move the car a few feet—that’s it, no free drop.
“I used to tell my guys, if it’s in the stall, and they come back, just give them back the car. It ain’t worth the headache,” Kapena Koki, former owner of Mauka Towing and Recovery Services, says. “But if you’re out of the stall, and you’re starting already, they gotta pay. Most guys, once they start moving, even a foot, that’s it.”
Steve Levin, director of the DCCA, disagrees. “Some of the operators claim that, once they’ve moved the vehicle, it doesn’t apply to them. It’s a very narrow view, which, frankly, the Office of Consumer Protection has disagreed with over the years. The spirit of the statute is that if you show up to the scene, they need to drop the vehicle.”
Barney Robinson, owner of Chevron stations on Waialae and Nimitz, and a longtime towing-industry advocate, says it’s not always so cut and dried. “When you’re sitting in a nice air-conditioned office, sipping iced tea, that’s one thing. In the real world, the guy is coming at you with a bat or a gun. You have to make decisions.”
Robinson calls the current law problematic, and says it actually works against the consumer. “There were situations where we were willing to stop and collect the fee, but now we don’t stop, we just takeoff, and the guy has to pay the hookup, the storage, the mileage and it’s more than that original $50,” he says.
He says he’ll likely be at the state Legislature next year, asking for a reinstatement of the drop fee, as well as an increase in the maximum allowed towing rates. It’ll be an uphill battle, of course. Few causes are as unpopular as those of the tow-truck operator.