Guard against dodgy tow-truck drivers

By Staff Writer

Despite the bad press they get, most tow-truck operators are honest people who provide an invaluable service on our roads. However, there are a few who have no scruples about taking advantage of hurt or disoriented drivers who have had an accident or experienced a breakdown.

Since a motor accident is an experience that most of us will have at some point, it is a good idea to be aware of common scams and bad practices among the country's less honourable tow-truck drivers.

Often, it will be the more unscrupulous tow-truck drivers who will be on the scene of a crash first since they have bribed traffic police to let them know when there is a potential new customer. Once they arrive, they'll often be pushy and try to coerce you to use their services. Once your car has been towed away, you may find yourself presented with an outrageous bill for storage and recovery if it was written off in the accident. Alternatively, the tow-truck driver may recommend a panel beater to you based on the backhander he receives rather than the quality of work the service provider does.

The first important point to note is that your car cannot be moved away from the scene of the accident without your consent except as far as is necessary to allow the passage of traffic. Do not allow anyone to bully you into allowing a tow-truck operator you do not trust to take your car away.

Phone your insurer immediately after an accident and ask for an approved operator to be dispatched to the scene of the accident. Also ensure that the tow-truck takes your vehicle to a panel beater that is approved by your insurer. Your insurer can refuse to pay suppliers and service providers not on its list of approved companies.

Alternatively, you can contact the Automobile Association (AA) if you are a member. The AA will dispatch a towing company that complies with its code of conduct and service level demands and will hold it responsible for unethical or unprofessional behaviour. Be sure that you have confirmed storage and towing costs in writing before you allow your car to be towed away. Also, write down the number plate of the tow-truck and insist on the following information: name of company, driver's name, physical address and phone number.

Do not sign anything besides an authorisation to tow the vehicle and remove your valuables from the motor vehicle before it is towed away for repairs. Also bear in mind that you might not be conscious and able to protect your vehicle yourself in the event of an accident. You can get a "Do not tow" sticker to display on your car from your insurer or the AA to make it clear that unauthorised towing companies may not tow it away.

The tow-truck industry may have a bad reputation, but it does the important job of removing cars blocking traffic after a crash and assisting drivers hurt in an accident because tow-trucks are so often the first on the scene. But you do need to make sure that you are protected against the guys that give the industry a bad name.

Consult a lawyer and your insurer to find out what you can do if you have had an accident and were taken for a ride by one of the unethical operators in this industry. The tow-truck associations, the South African Towing and Recovery Association and the United Towing Association of South Africa, are determined to clean up the industry and will also be interested in hearing your complaints.

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