Rein in predatory towing in parking enforcement

The worst possible scenario has now played out in a years-long dispute over parking in some of our communities. A man has been killed.

County and municipal officials can be given no better reason for regulating towing companies that enforce parking rules in private communities.

Yes, people who live in these communities -- and their guests -- should follow the parking rules. But confiscating property in this way leaves the vehicle owner little recourse or due process. The vehicle is gone, and if the owner doesn't pay up, he won't get it back.

Having to pay $300 and sometimes more to get your vehicle released is no small thing for many people, and if it means losing your way to get to work, emotions are going to escalate very quickly.

Market forces don't come into play here. The person whose vehicle is towed is a captive customer. That's one of the rationales for regulating taxi fares, especially at airports. Rates are often set by local governments so that customers aren't taken advantage of when they get into a taxi.

The person whose car is getting towed doesn't shop around for the best deal, and the person who hires the towing company to enforce its parking rules doesn't pay the price for bad practices.

At least so far. With last Friday's shooting of Carlos Olivera in the Edgefield community, homeowners associations with similar parking rules and contracts for enforcement are on notice.

The root cause of this issue is the design of these communities. Narrow streets and short driveways make it difficult, if not impossible, to park more than two vehicles at a home. Add a visitor or an overnight guest, and any two-car family has a problem. With cars parked on either side of some of these roads, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for emergency vehicles to get down these streets.

Rebuilding these communities isn't very likely, so parking rules will have to be enforced. The question is how to do it and with what amount of oversight.

We'd hardly be breaking new ground here with an ordinance setting limits on the fees charged and the terms under which an owner can get back his or vehicle. Ordinances that do just that are in place all across the country. Horry County passed an ordinance regulating "forced towing" in November 2009 after repeated complaints from visitors and residents. Among them: The fee to retrieve your vehicle went up if you argued with the tow truck driver.

County officials modeled it after an ordinance in Greenville. It went through several changes during negotiations with local towing companies to make sure the prices and requirements were fair to the companies and the people being towed.

The Horry County ordinance limits the fees that can be charged. The most that can be charged is $175 if a heavy wrecker is used. If an owner shows up before the vehicle is attached to the tow truck, the operator can charge no more than $25 during normal business hours and $35 after hours. If the vehicle is attached to the tow truck when the owner arrives, the tow truck operator can charge just half the applicable rate.

In 2008, the city of Newark, Del., enacted an ordinance that requires waiting 24 hours before assessing storage fees, accepting multiple payment methods and setting the tow rate at a maximum of $80 per vehicle. Another town requires tow truck drivers to back away from towing a vehicle if the owner shows up with a working ignition key and offers to move the offending vehicle.

Drafting and passing such an ordinance isn't that difficult to do. People probably will still get upset if their vehicles are towed. But at least common sense and a sense of fairness can be restored. We've seen what can happen when they are absent.