It's common knowledge that tow truck operators hit drivers with huge fees but worse is that there's no guarantee that even a member of a reputable towing association won't rip you off. What to do...?

People who don't have vehicle insurance and agree to have their vehicle towed are often confronted with bills that run into thousands - like a reader recently presented with a R4845 bill for towing his accident-damaged and uninsured vehicle and storing it for four days.

The reader, who did not want to be identified, said: "The towing distance was about five kilometres and the cost of the tow was R2451 including VAT - that's R490/km!

"I queried this amount with the towing company who said that was their fee covering a 40km radius."

"The tow company also charged an administration fee of R450, a security charge of R250 and storage charges of R150 per day.

"I was unable to collect the vehicle for four days and the total charge to get the car released was R4845. Legalised highway robbery?"

The reader queried the high fee with the South African Towing and Recovery Association (Satra) of which this tow company is a member, but said Satra had told him it could only recommend guidelines to its members.

When Motoring contacted the towing company for comment we were referred to Satra, which did not believe the fee was excessive.

A Satra spokesperson said: "The charge of R490/km is an over-simplification of the function performed in recovering and towing an accident-damaged vehicle from an accident scene to a place of safety for storage.

"The prices as charged in this matter are nowhere near the high end of charges for such tows currently being levied by other operators for similar services. The rip-offs charge in excess of R3000 but they are not our members."

She added that, in terms of the Competition Act, Satra did not fix, set or recommend prices.

"This means that, in terms of the law, we are not allowed to protect the consumer from ridiculous charges."

She added, however, that Satra's members were prohibited from exploiting consumers and were "committed to good business practice and improving the image of the towing and recovery industry".

Market prices for an accident tow tended to range from R1710 to R2451 (including VAT) within a radius of 20km, she said; beyond that a rate ranging from R4.50 to R7.40/km was charged. Storage charges ranged from R103 to R285 a day.

Insurance agreements

She said: "Satra Corporate, the commercial arm of Satra, has concluded agreements with various insurance and roadside assistance companies.

"These address prices charged to the insurer and roadside companies for services rendered and determine what processes should be followed."

If a vehicle was insured with an insurer who had entered into an agreement with Satra, she said, the contract would govern the tow charges, which would be paid by the insurer.

So how can you, as a driver, avoid being over-charged? The best advice is to insure the vehicle, as most insurers offer a free tow-in service.

Make sure you put the insurer's DO NOT TOW sticker on the inside of the windscreen to alert tow truck operators that your car may only be towed by an authorised operator.

AA members

AA members are charged R4.60/km for a tow, calculated on the distance travelled from the operator's base to the vehicle, the actual towing distance and the operators distance back to base. The first 40km are covered by the AA.

The service operates only in major metropolitan areas - Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town - and has been in place since June 2006 when the AA launched its own fleet of tow vehicles to complement its network of contractors.