How to beat the tow-truck 'vultures'
We all know about "vultures" - unscrupulous tow-truck operators that swoop down on accident scenes, take advantage of the drivers' disorientated state and tarnish what is generally a vital service.
They almost demand that you let them tow your vehicle, only to leave you with the aftermath of not only recovering from the accident, but trying to get your vehicle back or released to a panelbeater.
It's especially brutal when you don't have insurance and don't look for the endorsement stickers that identify the "good" guys - as we discovered through a recent reader complaint.
The reader was charged a staggering R4400 to be towed less than 10km from an accident scene on a normal weekday morning - R2950 for the tow, R200 a day for storage and a R1000 admin charge.
Accredited towing firms agree about R2500 is the norm, storage is generally R100 a day and admin costs are a grey area; most don't charge, none are as high as R1000 and some make the first day free.
Being uninsured meant that the reader had nobody to fight his case, leaving him with no option but to cough up the full amount.
So how do you avoid being ripped off?
SA Towing and Recovery Association (Satra) chairman André van der said in a case like this your options are limited. Possession of your vehicle is used by the unscrupulous operator as leverage for payment and the situation can become ugly.
Satra-recommended rates are R2100 for towing, R95 to R180 per day for storage (depending on the facility), and not more than R350 as an admin fee.
Should you be rendered unconscious in the accident, your vehicle may only be moved if it's an obstruction, and then only to the side of the road - tow operators are not allowed to do more without the consent of the accident victim or a relative.
Van der Merwe said: "It's a case of prevention being better than cure.
"Look for the Satra sticker on the tow-truck and check that it carries the current year membership date - there will be action against those operating outside of the Satra code."
The Satra code of conduct assures consumers have recourse against members.
"Call our 24-hour hotline from the crime scene on 0861-072-872 for assistance, they will assist with proper operators," concluded van der Merwe.
AA brand manager Nick Bedford said: "Contact your insurer if your vehicle needs to be towed, for advice on who to call for the recovery and where to take the vehicle - and always get a reference number."
Keep a cool head
The AA has appointed contractors in place in addition to its own tow-trucks. These don't carry any sort of AA branding but should be able to supply an 'RT' number on request that can be verified by calling the AA call centre on 083-843-22.
These providers are bound by AA service level agreements similar to the Satra code.
It seems that a cool head and common sense are the only things that separate your car from an unfriendly tow-truck pound. Try to remember to look for stickers that prove some type of accreditation, establish the towing and recovery rate, and never sign a blank towing form.
The more information you have about the tow operator, the better. It may also be a good idea to keep the Satra, AA, and your insurance company emergency numbers on your cellphone.