County must push ahead with towing regulations

Beaufort County officials are making progress on needed towing regulations, but again we urge them to focus on the greatest concern: Towing to enforce parking rules in private communities.

Beaufort County Council's Governmental Committee last week took up a second draft of towing regulations and a proposal from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, but stalled on fee schedules for towing services.

Committee members want to get input from towing companies. No towing company representatives were at last week's meeting, but they did show up to object at a February meeting on the subject. The committee postponed discussion until May 2.

The push for towing regulations came from a deadly confrontation in December between a tow-truck driver and a man whose vehicle had been immobilized because it was parked on a street in Edgefield, a community that doesn't allow on-street parking because of its narrow roads.

That confrontation and less violent, but still serious, confrontations in other communities point out the need for due process for people whose vehicles have been towed from private property. Rules should take into account the costs for tow truck operators, but should not allow them to exploit a captive market.

Proposals to allow vehicle owners to pay reasonable fees and retrieve their vehicles before they are towed would help reduce tension on the scene. The figures on the table now are $25 if the vehicle isn't attached to the wrecker and $50 if it is.

Making it easier and less expensive to retrieve a vehicle after it has been towed also would help. A company should not be allowed to hold onto a vehicle by limiting access to it just to increase the cost of getting it back. In the current draft, storage charges would not start until 12 hours after the vehicle is towed.

The Sheriff's Office and Councilman Rick Caporale suggest prohibiting towing companies from immobilizing a vehicle with a wheel boot unless specifically directed to by police.

This makes sense given that many communities prohibit parking on narrow streets to ensure easier access for emergency vehicles. Immobilizing a vehicle does nothing to help that. It does give a tow operator leverage to get money from the owner.

The Sheriff's Office also pointed out some potential problems with language in the draft ordinance. It could hurt towing companies located just outside Beaufort County, but which do a lot of work here, including heavy commercial vehicle haulers from Savannah. And the office points out that requiring tow truck drivers to hold a South Carolina driver's license could put tow truck drivers from Georgia who work here out of a job.

Notifying law enforcement when a vehicle is towed without the owner's knowledge -- already required under state law -- also makes sense, as does requiring private security personnel who order tows to stay on the scene until the tow is completed. This could help defuse the kind of confrontation that occurred in Edgefield.

Edgefield has hired another company to tow vehicles that violate its no-parking rules, and the guidelines under which the towing company now operates could serve as a model for other communities.

Towing employees will not patrol the neighborhood looking for violators. A security company hired by Edgefield will notify violators first with a warning. If a warning is not heeded, then security officers will call for a tow. Officers will stay with the vehicle until it is towed to ensure the safety of all involved.

If the purpose is to keep the streets cleared of vehicles that could impede traffic, especially emergency vehicles, and not to line the pockets of towing companies, this approach should help.

County regulations would help ensure that all towing companies operate responsibly and safely.