Can you imagine paying a tow bill of six figures? In an effort to stop this type of gouging, the Wyoming Highway Patrol has appointed a "Tow Coordinator" based in Cody. He's working to make a change statewide.
If you're stuck in deep snow, and temperatures are freezing, you'd give almost anything to be rescued by a tow. Many of Wyoming's tow operators work hard to recover vehicles all year around. And they treat motorists fairly.
But some have charged alarming amounts to tow stranded vehicles. Rodney Miears is the state's new Tow Recovery Program Coordinator for the Wyoming Highway Patrol.
He said, "The biggest tow bill I've seen is $170,000."
That was for a tractor-trailer tow. But, Miears said he's seen a lot of high charges.
He said, "One was for a 6-mile tow for a vehicle. And it was just over $800."
Miears has been contacting tow companies to discuss such extreme charges as he hears about them.
He explained, "Part of my job is to review the fee schedules they provide the Wyoming Highway Patrol and make sure they are consistent and fair. And then also look at the invoice they provide to the client, and then match that up with the fee schedule to make sure that what they are charged is in line with what they said they are going to charge."
Miears said although Colorado and Utah set tow fees, Wyoming does not control how much a tow operator charges.
Dave Balling is a Farmer's Insurance Agent in Cody. He says although insurance companies often foot the bill for a tow, they don't have much control.
Balling remarked, "We really can't dictate the cost of what a tow bill may be. We can attempt to have a conversation with a provider to see if they'll reduce a charge. Typically, those conversations don't seem to go that well."
Balling said high tow charges drive up auto insurance costs.
He explained, "Whenever that cost of a tow becomes unusually high, that affects premiums for everybody, because if we're having to pay more for these tow bills, then we're going to have to charge more for the insurance."
Miears has been in the state's new position for two months. He said he's handled 20 complaints. Has he had any success?
He answered, "Yeah, and I've actually had people email me and call me and say, 'Thank you for getting involved."
In Wyoming industry representatives deal with complaints through a dispute resolution committee.
Miears said the committee consists of, "Tow and recovery owners, myself, and someone from the insurance industry, someone from the trucking industry, and someone from the attorney general's office."
If a tow company refuses to work with the state on fair charges, there is one possible remedy.
If a motorist asks a patrolman to call for a tow, the officer goes through a rotation of operators in the area and can cut out an unfair operator.
Miears pointed out, "Statutorily, we have the ability to have our own rotation."
He said most towing companies are happy about dealing with him in his new position.
He remarked, "Typically, they're open to it…Now they are just dealing with one person and one person's requirements, instead of multiple different division Lts."
But tow companies have financial challenges too. The owner of E & F Towing in Casper is Rhonda Zimmerman:
She said, "Trucks cost from $150,000 to over a million dollars for some of those bigger rigs. Our insurance is really high on some of those vehicles, obviously. It costs a lot just to train our guys. A new driver goes through ten to twelve thousand dollars in training before we even put him out on the road."
Zimmerman said maintenance is another high cost for a business that has to recoup those costs over slow and busy seasons. She pointed out another cost factor most of us don't think about.
She explained, "Uninsured, and underinsured motorists. So an awful lot of those accidents we pick up we actually really don't get paid for. Some of those people don't have money so they abandon those vehicles in our yard."
But Zimmerman welcomes Miears ongoing efforts to work with the towing industry and create some stability across the state.
Meiars said the towing advisory board will soon be reviewing state policies.
He said, "Toward the end of January, or the beginning of February, the Wyoming Highway Patrol is going to be teaming up with the towing advisory board and the dispute resolution committee and going over the proposed changes with the towing industry."
There will be occasions where someone has to deal with a towing company by themselves. They may not have insurance. Farmers Insurance Agent Dave Balling said you might want to ask the tow company how much they will charge, tell them you'll call them back, then call another company to see if you can get a better deal. In other words: shop around.
And tow company owner Rhonda Zimmerman said you might want to get past the shock of the accident, before you deal with possible tow bill shock.
She said, "We realize we probably meet most of our customers on the worst day of their lives, or close to it. The more communication we have between ourselves and the customers if they don't understand and don't agree with the charges is good for them and good for us and good for them. Most of us are very willing to work with you if you just call and talk."
If people want to reach out to the Tow Recovery program they simply need to contact the highway patrol.