Hilton Head, county right to look at towing rules

Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island officials are right to take action after a tow trucker driver was charged with shooting a man in a parking dispute.

The two local governments are looking at possible regulations for towing from private lots or streets. Other local governments should join them.

The goal of such an ordinance, said Hilton Head Town Councilman Bill Harkins, would be to make towing less stressful and confrontational.

"That stress, I think, breeds volatility, and when that occurs, bad things happen to good people," Harkins said.

Setting limits for operators on towing charges and making it easier and less punitively expensive for owners to get back their vehicles after they've been towed certainly would help.

Towing operators must be a part of the process in drafting the ordinance. There are legitimate costs of business that should be taken into account.

The county is looking at Horry County's ordinance, passed in November 2009, as a model.

That ordinance was prompted in part by complaints that fees were exorbitant and arbitrary.

"It was indiscriminate and totally discretionary on the part of tow truck companies," said Arrigo Carotti, Horry County's attorney.

The key to a successful ordinance will be putting in place some due process so that owners of towed vehicles have less reason to think they're being taken advantage of.

As we've stated before, market forces don't come into play here. The person whose vehicle is towed is a captive customer. The owner is at the mercy of the towing company when it comes to getting back the vehicle.

Notifying the police and getting a case number won't solve the issue, as one tow operator suggested, unless it means the police show up to supervise the towing and keep tempers and events under control.

Proposals have included:

  • A cap on towing fees.
  • Background checks for tow truck drivers.
  • An appeal process for aggrieved drivers.
  • Limitations on the use of wheel boots.
  • A requirement that owners of towed vehicles can retrieve their cars within 24 hours.
  • If the goal is to keep vehicles from blocking streets in communities with narrow streets and limited parking venues, then these rules could help accomplish that with much less rancor.

    Local officials also should review their ordinances to make sure that no more communities are built with streets so narrow that emergency vehicles can't get through with on-street parking. The reality is that people will visit one another's homes, and they will drive to get there. Community design ought to take that into account.

    Many communities across the country have successfully implemented private-towing regulations. There's no reason to think it can't be done here.