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Plan To Stop ‘Rogue’ Tow Trucks From Preying On Car Crash Victims, Holding Vehicles ‘Hostage,’ Stalls In City Council Committee

Despite incidents of gunfire between rival tow truck drivers and towers listening to scanners to beat police to the scene of a crash, a council committee said it needs more time to consider the crackdown.

A car on a tow truck at one of the city's auto pound at 701 N. Sacramento Blvd. in East Garfield Park.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A proposal to reign in “rogue towers” by requiring a new tow truck drivers license stalled in committee Wednesday even as supporters of the measure described an industry that preys on victims at the scene of an accident.

The ordinance, introduced by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), would require tow-truck drivers to qualify for a license and pay a $250 fee for each truck they own. Operators would need to seek a license for their towing lots, as well, with the industry to be regulated by the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. 

By licensing drivers, the city could keep track of who’s operating within the city and strip a license from those found to be violating other provisions in the ordinance, officials argued.

The ordinance prohibits tow truck drivers from stopping at or near the scene of an accident to solicit a tow, instead requiring drivers to wait for a call from a vehicle operator, their insurance agent or law enforcement.

Towers must keep records of towed vehicles, and “improperly towed vehicles must be released.”

Violators of the ordinance would be hit with fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 per offense, including operating without a license. Operators that falsely claim to be a government official or law enforcement could be slapped with up to a $20,000 fine.

“Whatever is currently in place is not working,” Villegas said.

He cited an incident last summer where a tow truck crashed into a CTA bus, leaving 6 people injured, before the driver sped away. Some towers show up to the scene of an accident ahead of emergency vehicles and convince vulnerable residents their insurance company sent the truck.

“Law enforcement has reported instances of gunfire between rival towing companies and incidents of arsons at tow storage facilities with clear elements of organized crime,” he said.

Keith Blair, of the Chicago Police Department’s major auto theft unit, told the committee towers monitor police scanners and show up to crash scenes ahead of emergency responders.

“When they are on the scene of accidents, they’re using any method necessary to try and obtain control of an unsuspecting victim’s vehicle and…then holding these cars hostage,” he said.

“In some cases, resident’s vehicles have been held at ransom,” Rosa Escareno, commissioner of BACP told the committee. “Owners are often forced to pay thousands to recover their vehicles. And in many cases, the vehicles may be left in random locations difficult for our investigators to also locate.”

“Today is the beginning of a safer and more accountable tomorrow,” Villegas said.

But, that new day was put on pause as some aldermen on the License Committee expressed confusion over what the ordinance required, and Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who chairs the committee, delayed a vote until at least next month.

Heather Drake, vice president of government relations at AAA, asked that the company’s network of drivers be exempted from the ordinance, saying it’s requirements would cause their drivers to file duplicative paperwork at the scene of an accident. Their drivers are also part of a pre-screened network and only dispatched by AAA representatives.

“We support the intent of the proposal, we agree there are rogue drivers out there and we need to provide some assistance to consumers,” she said. “But I don’t believe the AAA and the American Automobile Association is your focus here.”

Villegas demurred at allowing an exemption, arguing if it was granted, it would have to be granted to other towing clubs.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said he’s a AAA member himself, and he was worried the ordinance may “hinder not only myself,” but others who access the service.

“I would like for there to be some common ground here working with the service, because these are not the people that we’re trying to deal with,” he said. “If there’s some unintended consequences, if those could be figured out here before we advance this, that would be greatly appreciated.”

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