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Towing troubles

New laws aimed at reducing confusion

(Published May 5, 2003)

By ANDREW MOISAN

Staff Writer

Grimaces abound at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Adjudication Office at 65 K St. NE. Regretful motorists reluctantly pry open wallets and fork over fines, their teeth gnashing. But at least these people soon will get their cars back.

Then there are those unfortunates whose cars disappeared while they were out of town for a week, or during rush hour. And while someone Ė they canít be sure exactly who Ė was busy towing their car, an abandoned hatchback sits near their home, not a tow truck in sight.

Towing procedures in the District involve an expansive coordination of multiple city agencies and private companies whose collective efforts attempt to ensure quality-of-life standards ranging from clear commuting routes to towing from accident sites and removal of abandoned cars.

But complexities in the cityís towing operations have prompted a lack of accountability among the agencies and companies, as well as confusion among citizens, an examination of towing operations has found.

Such shortfalls in city towing procedures have resulted in public outcry and formal, city investigations. Now, city officials and concerned residents hope new legislation will help make towing procedures operate smoother and restore the publicís faith in their effectiveness.

"The towing is rather complex," said Mary Myers, a public information officer at the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW), explaining her agencyís role. "So much has changed in towing regulations, itís hard to know where to start."

Explaining current towing procedures is burdensome for officials also because the system is due to undergo a thorough overhaul in coming months, leaving those with questions about how towing works today with the task of checking back about mid-June.

"Things are drastically changing as weíre speaking," said Commander Joseph Griffith, deputy director of corporate support with the Metropolitan Police Department. He acknowledged that there is now "confusion about which cranes do what" but that the new program will simplify matters.

"Itís the answer to the towing problem in the city," Griffith said.

Two bills have been introduced in the D.C. City Council Ė one of which has passed and the other awaiting action Ė that should, officials say, alleviate the confusion and resentment that for years have accompanied towing operations in the city.

The first of the bills, passed March 18, will, when implemented about June 16, provide a more centralized structure for the various agencies involved in city towing operations. The new system will make public works the center of all towing procedures Ė for example, giving the agency authority to choose which private towing company responds to a police request, a responsibility belonging now to police.

In addition, every vehicle that is towed by any agency or company will be assigned a number with which DPW will track it. This, officials say, will diminish the possibility that owners will not be able to find their cars once towed Ė a problem that has beleaguered the city.

Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, along with Councilman Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4, and Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, R-At-Large, all of whom sit on the councilís Committee on Public Works and the Environment, are waiting to vote on the second of the bills, which would further redefine current towing standards. The bill is expected to come before the committee early in May and the full council later that month.

But, as it is, the soon-to-be old procedures are the rules now in place.

Generally, two city agencies conduct the cityís intricate towing procedures: DPW and the Metropolitan Police Department. Towing companies throughout the city also are privately contracted to assist these agencies in everything from removing abandoned or illegally parked vehicles to towing a wrecked car away from an accident site, according to interviews with city officials.

Efforts to examine the dynamics of city towing procedures began with DPW.

DPW

The Department of Public Works, with its main office on the sixth floor of Franklin D. Reeves Center at 2000 14th St. NW, has the largest number of city-owned and operated tow trucks used solely to relocate illegally parked or abandoned vehicles from city streets to its storage lots.

In 2001, the agency spent $12.4 million on parking enforcement, parking management and in its Abandoned and Junk Vehicle Division, according to estimates obtained from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Last year, that figure was slightly lower, at $12.3 million.

The agency, with its fleet of 25 new tow cranes purchased last summer, generally splits its duties into two broad categories: towing illegally parked vehicles and abandoned vehicles.

The agencyís definition of "illegally parked" splits matters further, with cars in this category divided among those parked in rush-hour traffic and others that have accumulated multiple 30-day-old tickets for such reasons as being left in front of an expired meter or parked anywhere with expired registration, tags or inspection stickers.

Rush hour restrictions are in effect from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, and again from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. weekdays. Vehicles caught parked in a busy "rush hour lane," as officials call it, are "removed" from the major thoroughfare and left on a nearby street where they wonít be a hindrance.

"The idea is to get those cars off major thoroughfares so that traffic flow and safetyís maintained," Myers said.

Motorists who find their cars have been moved during rush hour should call 727-5000 to find out where their carís been towed. For all other towing-related inquiries, citizens should call the Mayorís Citywide Call Center, the D.C. governmentís main phone directory, at 727-1000.

A car illegally parked Ė say, in front of an expired meter Ė will begin to collect tickets. When parking officers -- civilians trained and authorized to dish out parking tickets -- have written three tickets for a vehicle whose owner has allowed them each to sit unpaid for more than 30 days, the agency will dispatch a "boot crew" to apply the "Denver boot" to the vehicleís wheels.

The boot immobilizes the vehicle and brings a $75 charge that must be paid along with other fees -- like the regularly charged $100 towing fee and all other ticket fees -- at the DMV Adjudication Office. Boots usually are removed within a couple of hours of paying all fees.

If the owner fails to pay the three outstanding tickets, DPW tows the vehicle to its "short-term impoundment lot" at 4800 Addison Road in Beaver Heights, Md., where, unless its owner comes forward, it will stay for up to 14 days. Most come and quickly claim their vehicles from the 486-space lot, officials noted.

If they do not, however, vehicles are deemed "abandoned" and hauled to the Blue Plains Storage and Auction Facility at 5001 Shepherd Parkway SW, where, officials said, only about 7 percent of owners return looking for their cars among the approximately 1,700 that may be parked there at any time.

The agency defines an "abandoned vehicle" as any that has sat in one place on public property for more than 72 hours. "Junk" vehicles are "wrecked, dismantled or in irreparable condition," according to the agencyís Web site.

After an abandoned vehicle is reported, a notice is posted on it advising its owner to move it within 72 hours. They are, however, given six days to do so. Then, if the vehicle remains, the agency dispatches a tow truck from its privately contracted company, Precision Towing at 4940 Connecticut Avenue NW, to haul it to the Blue Plains lot. Employees at Precision declined to comment on towing procedures.

Cars abandoned on private property cannot be towed before 90 days without permission from the propertyís owner. Junk vehicles, considered dangerous, can be towed immediately if without valid tags.

Cars sit at the impoundment lot for up to 45 days, during which final attempts are made to contact the owners. If unclaimed after 45 days, they are put on sale at one of the agencyís twice-monthly auctions, where bidding begins at $75. Bidders pay a refundable $100 fee. Occasionally, Myers noted, cars will sell for "a couple of thousand" dollars. But this is rare. The next auction will be held May 6.

In 2001, Myers said, the agency towed a total of 11,253 vehicles, from motorcycles and cars to boats and trailers. DPW towed an additional 7,629 as abandoned. Last year, the agency towed 14,780 in total, with an additional 6,906 abandoned.

MPD

The Metropolitan Police Department has about six tow cranes and three private companies contracted to help when these six city trucks are unavailable, Griffith said. In addition, MPD has a rotating list of about 60 tow cranes licensed through the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and divided to accommodate each police district. These cranes are used in cases when towing a vehicle involves no legal issues -- as when a car is towed as evidence of a crime or after a fatal car accident.

All of this will change in June, Griffith said, when the new legislation goes in effect.

But now, police have duties regarding towing vehicles similar to those of DPW, with policies regarding rush-hour removal, impoundments on private property, use of tow cranes at traffic accidents and other situations, according to the departmentís General Order 303.3, "Tow Crane Operation and Enforcement." There are, however, differences.

Police, for instance, rarely tow a vehicle for a rush hour violation, and when they do, Griffith said, itís a "removal," not a tow. Like DPW, police will move the vehicle out of heavy rush hour traffic and drop it off on a nearby street where it is legally parked and out of other motoristsí way.

Still, the order notes that rush hour restrictions are in place between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, and again from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. This is a more inclusive range of times than DPW recognizes. Confusion, then, could result with a motorist more familiar with DPWís designated rush-hour times but whose car police towed before 7 a.m. or 4:30 p.m.

Police towing vehicles for rush-hour violations are required to use one of the departmentís own cranes and, like DPW, move "the vehicle to a location on a public street as close to the original location as possible," according to the report. But, Griffith added, towing vehicles from rush-hour lanes is primarily DPWís job.

In traffic accidents, the order requires officers who have deemed a tow crane necessary for assisting victims or moving vehicles to contact a dispatcher and summon one of the departmentís cranes. If one is not available, police use the list of 60 private tow cranes to find one, based on location -- if the accident happened in the Seventh Police District, for example, police would consult a list of private tow cranes based in that district.

These private companies will, if police need not retain the vehicle for legal purposes, tow a vehicle to its own storage lot and charge their own towing and storage fees. But owners, if able, have the right to direct that their vehicles be towed to any storage site they choose, the order states. Police are required to furnish the list of licensed tow cranes to assist owners in their decision, though they cannot recommend a selection.

Alex Barry, manager of Alexís Towing at 916 Taylor St. NW, one of the companies on the departmentís list, said he charges $150 per tow and $25 to $30 a day for storage.

But in response to many who have bemoaned that private towing companies charge exorbitant fees for their services, Barry, who has been in business a little more than eight years, asserted that, considering the insurance he has to pay for his property, $50 is cheap for storage there.

"It should be more than $50," Barry said. "We have to pay a lot of money to keep our trucks on the street and moving."

Standard procedure, Barry said, is for a police dispatcher to call and give one of his 20 employees a location at which an officer needs a tow crane. One of his 15 trucks is then sent there. In accordance with the police order, Barry said his company usually tows a vehicle back to its own lot unless the owner specifically asked it not be.

In cases when police need to retain the vehicle for legal reasons, a police dispatcher is given authority to decide whether to call a police or private tow crane -- "whichever in his judgment is in the publicís best interest," according to the order.

Police charge $50 for impoundments resulting from parking violations and $3 per day for each vehicle in storage. Police share space at the Blue Plains storage facility with DPW and charge $20 for each vehicle that is towed there from a station storage facility. They will tow a vehicle from a department storage facility to Blue Plains within 14 days.

PROBLEMS

In early January, Scott Polk got a call from an agitated neighbor reporting an eyesore. Someone had dumped a car outside his home in the 4500 block of Q Street NW, where it had been for more than a month.

Polk, a Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner, heeded his neighborís complaint, picked up his phone and dialed 727-1000.

Initially told the car would be towed in 30 to 90 days, Polk said he saw mid-April arrive and the green, sticker-laden Plymouth Valiant still sat stubbornly outside his neighborís home -- where it remains.

"Itís not going away," Polk said. "I get 20 calls a month about this green Valiant. I canít tell you how many e-mails Iíve gotten."

Martha Pappano, a former Ward 5 ANC commissioner, has had similar experiences.

"To get these things towed away, itís almost impossible," Pappano said.

Like Polk, Pappano spoke of an irked neighbor who had recently told her of an abandoned car nearby that was stripped of parts and bearing military stickers suggesting it hadnít been dropped there by its owner, but, rather, a car thief.

"The towing situation is a very serious problem," Pappano said. "A number of tow trucks drop vehicles on our streets. We have vehicles that havenít been moved for months."

Councilman Fenty, in a telephone interview, cited areas in his ward that have become veritable "abandoned car lots."

The abandoned and junk vehicle problem is "at its worst point ever," Fenty asserted. "Itís just unbelievable."

He said the new abandoned vehicle legislation "couldnít come fast enough."

City officials and concerned citizens have said the abandoned vehicle problem is driven largely by a lack of space for such vehicles. Officials at DPW are as frustrated as residents, they say, and wait eagerly for help with the problem.

"Really, there are only two objectives here: getting those cars off the streets faster and off our lots quicker," Myers said. "We do a great job at towing cars from the street."

The problem, she said, is that many more cars are flooding into Blue Plains than can be handled.

When the Blue Plains lot is full, officials said, it must be closed. Typically, it may stay closed for half a day to two days -- which may not sound like a long time.

"But still, if the lotís closed for a day, thatís one day you canít be towing cars off the street," said Adam Herringa, a DPW program analyst. "And it doesnít take long before a backlog starts to grow on the street."

This backlog also affects the way DPW prioritizes which vehicles it tows.

"Given the backlog of abandoned vehicles, a car thatís not deemed to be dangerous doesnít go to the top of the list," Myers said.

Councilman Graham said he is appalled by cases of police tow cranes dumping cars on residential streets and questioned why there is no other place for the vehicles, suggesting residents were paying enough for the Beaver Heights lot.

"Itís actually infuriating, is what it is," Graham said. "Who wants to have a junk car dumped in front of their house by a police tow truck? Thank you very much, MPD."

The bill due to be voted on by the Committee on Public Works and the Environment in early May would change the rule that states a vehicle can only be considered abandoned after 72 hours on public property, reducing that threshold to 24 hours.

It will also redefine "abandoned," designating that a vehicle meeting any two of four new criteria -- that the vehicle "is extensively damaged, inoperable, a harborage for rats and vermin, or displays non-valid tags or registration sticker" -- will be towed within the new 24-hour timeframe, a council aide said.

The proposed law also would decrease to 14 the number of days cars must sit at Blue Plains before auction. It now stands at 45 days.

In the meantime, however, the multi-faceted and, according to some, highly problematic system the city utilizes in its daily towing operations remains in place -- much to the chagrin of Polk, who insists the problems that exist now never used to.

"A year and-a-half, two years ago I could call and get a car towed in about 10 days," Polk said. "Weíre going backwards."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator