File picture: Matthews Baloyi.

The towing industry is notorious for doing shady work, with unscrupulous operators reportedly paying for tip-offs, alleged to be responsible for turning traffic lights in order to cause crashes, driving dangerously to get to scenes, hoodwinking drivers into agreeing to fees, holding vehicles to ransom and intimidating people.

The complaints are endless. But there are honest operators out there who are working to elevate the industry’s reputation.

The industry is still unregulated though, which means anyone can buy a truck, hopefully get the required licensing, unleash themselves onto crash scenes and make a quick buck.

Ettienne Pel of the United Towing Association of SA (Utasa) says progress is being made but they’re still far from any towing service regulation.

“Utasa are active participants to the drafting of the tow-truck regulation within Gauteng, working with the Gauteng Department of Roads and Transport, as well as other stakeholders.

REGULATIONS COMING

“The draft regulation is (almost) complete but we are now in a process, with the SABS, drafting standards for tow trucks in South Africa because there isn’t any standard. Once this has been completed, it will become part of the draft regulation document for Gauteng.

“Hopefully, once approved through the legislation process and public comment, it will most likely form the platform in becoming a national document,” he said.

Regulation is way overdue, especially given the fact that when you’ve been involved in a crash, you’re not thinking clearly – or might be incapacitated – and besides the obvious trauma and cost, you could also end up signing away your property to a dodgy tow-truck driver.

TAKING ADVANTAGE

Two letters in recent weeks echoed a similar story: The drivers were drunk, agreements were struck and then the sobering realisation came that they shouldn’t have signed up to a particular towing service.

And while there’s no sympathy to be had for someone who gets behind a steering wheel inebriated and is then involved in a crash, the fact is that they were taken advantage of because of their state of mind.

Whether drunk, incapacitated or simply traumatised, drivers involved in crashes often don’t get to read the small print, don’t know their rights or ask the right questions, and then release their vehicles into the “care” of people who could very well hold those to ransom.

Ebrahim from Joburg mailed me towards the end of last year about a crash involving a friend who was drunk.

There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved but the car needed to be towed.

The driver’s uncle claimed he was made to sign their towing agreement under duress and the tow-truck service took the car 6km down the road.

During this time, the drunk driver fled the scene to dodge arrest. Then they couldn’t get the car released.

The towing company, based in Industria North, was closed over the weekend, which meant they couldn’t retrieve the car until that Monday.

By that time, the bill had escalated to R8000 – for just a 6km tow and two days of storage. They tried the legal route but the company laughed off their threats.

BLATANT LIES

Another reader, Michael from Cape Town, had a similar issue: “My son, 20, dozed off while driving at about 3am. He hit a kerb and burst two tyres.

“When a tow truck arrived, my son asked if the company is contracted to do work for 1st For Women insurance.

“The driver said yes and called us. My wife asked him again about the insurance and he said yes all along. On that basis I said, okay, tow the car.

“He did this – a distance of not even 2km – and he brought my son home. The next morning I called the number he gave us, spoke to the owner, who said: ‘I don’t know why (the driver) said that; we are not contracted by 1st For Women, although we have done some jobs for them.’ I asked about the costs. He says he’d be ‘lenient’ and charge R3 700 for the tow and R360 a day for storage. It sounded a lot, but I had no reference point.

“I later researched on the net, saw a couple of associations (one of them Utasa, linked to companies like Hollard and other recognisable names, which quoted figures of between R1800 and R2100 for a tow and R120 a day for storage, with the first weekend free).

“When I mentioned these figures to the owner, he laughed off Utasa as ‘cheapskates’, saying he is a member of the SA Auto Body Repairers Association (Saarsa).

“A few days later I mailed the tow-truck company, offering to pay R2000 plus R120 a day. They ‘discount’ it to R2750 and R250 a day, which came to R4000. I paid to get the car back. We probably would not have paid a cent if the towing company was in fact contracted by our insurance.

“The tow owner and his driver obtained the tow by lying four times on the scene. I told him I’ll be looking up the ombud but he threatened to charge my son for driving under the influence (my son had been out drinking, but I don’t know how much and told the owner that he should be subject to the laws of the land like anybody else).

“Then he threatened to sue me for defamation if I bad-mouthed his company. My son’s conduct and the fraudulent obtaining of the tow have nothing to do with each other.

“Turns out, they are not members of Saarsa.

OVER-CHARGED

“When I called Saarsa, they were mystified by the prices quoted by this guy, and also quoted prices of around the R1300 mark for tow and R120 a day, weekend free. I tried laying a charge with the Woodstock police, but a detective said no criminal charge was possible – it’s a case of the driver’s word against ours.”

Such deception was common, Pel told me, pointing out that while people should always read the small print, they did have rights.

“Costs are written in very fine print, which is not clearly readable, which is also against the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), and consumers are misled. Many operators have this fine print on the reverse of their documents and get consumers to sign in the front, where the following is stated: ‘By signature hereto, I agree to the terms and conditions on reverse.’

“This is not acceptable.”

WHAT RECOURSE DO YOU HAVE?

So what recourse do you have against towing services? Pel says the provincial Consumer Commission offices, located across the country, are your best bet (visithttp://www.thencc.gov.za for the contact details in your province), but Utasa is also happy to assist.

“Should consumers have complaints, they are more than welcome to forward their complaints to us and we will either act against the operator if a member of our association, or advise them of the route they can use for assistance.

“If you’ve signed documentation with exorbitant fees, there is not much you can do, except take it to the Consumer Affairs Office for investigation. They will negotiate as the CPA does mention that your rates must be fair and reasonable.

“Should a vehicle be towed without the correct authorisation, open a case of theft of motor vehicle, and SAPS cannot decline to take such a case, otherwise make an appointment with the station commissioner,” he said.

HOW TO AVOID TOW TRUCK TROUBLE

Ettienne Pel from United Towing Association of SA offers this advice:

Warning signs: Be wary of operators who have no signage on their vehicles. Make sure they have a business name and address prominently displayed, with contact numbers, which must be the same in the authorisation books. If they don’t have this, don’t use them – contact your insurer and ask for a service provider.

Know what you’re signing for: Never sign any blank documents, especially where the rates are not clear. The law requires that consumers are informed before signing documentation what the costs are for – in this case towing, storage rates, admin, security, recovery, second tows etc. This must all be in the front of the authorisation document, as in the case of any contract.

Get all the details: The driver’s full name, the company’s physical address and landline number, and the truck’s registration number.

Save important numbers: This is especially true of your insurance company. Rather contact your insurer directly. Unscrupulous operators usually contact their own offices, who pretend to be the insurer and mislead drivers.

If you’re not insured: Arrange to have your vehicle collected as soon as you can to avoid racking up storage fees.

If you can’t make the call: If the driver or owner is incapacitated and can’t make the call – either because of injuries, arrest or death – the vehicle must be impounded for safekeeping.

The law is clear: Police and metro officers are not allowed to enter into a contract between the owner and a towing service.

If they’re pressuring you, they’re getting a kickback from the service.

Erratum: The Road Safety Campaign in Cape Town took issue with my use of the word “accident” in last week’s column on the proposed amendments to the Road Accident Fund. Pointing out the World Heritage Association’s advice that this word confuses drivers’ state of mind, they’ve said the words “crash”, “collision” or “incident” are more appropriate. I fully agree and apologise for that – most crashes are no mere accidents.

Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]

 Follow her on Twitter: @askgeorgie