You have rights if your car is to be hauled off, writes Eric Thompson
This year, for the first time, my car was towed and I was astounded to learn that tow-truck drivers are allowed to break into your car, take the handbrake off and put it into neutral.
A few years ago, Superwheels ran a piece on towing and, now that I have had first-hand experience, it’s time to revisit the rights of the car owner. They have more than most people realise.
It made sense when a car was hoisted on to a flatbed truck and driven away, but I could never figure out how a car was towed away with its wheels still on the tarmac.
People either leave the handbrake on or leave the car in gear. Some drivers do both, so how is it possible for the car to be towed with at least two wheels locked up? Breaking and entering, apparently.
While finding answers to this question, a number of other interesting facts cropped up, especially concerning what towies can and cannot do.
We know the police and local councils will tow a car from a public road but, when it involves private land, a bit of confusion exists.
Towing cars from private land is justified under an old law called “distress damage feasant”.
Essentially, it means if a neighbour’s cow wanders into your backyard and starts to eat your crops, you can keep it until the damage has been paid for.
Private-property owners are not legally required to display a warning that cars will be towed if parked illegally or to provide contact details for the tow operator. The AA and others have long been campaigning to improve the law in this area.
Tow-truck drivers can break into a car to release the handbrake, provided they are not entering with illegal intent. However, the Transport Services Licensing Act requires that tow operators take “all reasonable precautions” to prevent loss from, or damage to, any vehicle being towed. They may be fined up to $2000 if they breach the act.
If your car is damaged or property lost, complain to the tow operator directly.
Let your insurance company know what has happened. It will make a claim against the tow-company’s insurer.
If a towie turns up to a job and finds your dog – or any other animal for that matter – in the vehicle, they can still tow the car, taking the dog with them.
Cars towed from private land can be held until the fee is paid but cannot be sold without additional legal action being taken.
The driver of every tow vehicle must wear a sealed driver identification card, which should be clearly displayed at all times. Tow operators must also display on the inside and outside of every tow truck their name, business location and contact phone number.
The act also says a vehicle may be towed only if a tow authority has been completed, which must be signed by a police officer, traffic warden or the landowner or person who requested the tow.
However, be aware that some firms get tow authorisations signed in bulk and use them as they need them. This is not illegal in itself, but it doesn’t necessarily give towies the right just to tow anyone away at any time.
After the first day, tow firms charge a storage fee for every day your car remains at their yard uncollected. As with the tow fee itself, you should challenge any storage fee you believe to be excessive, if necessary in the Disputes Tribunal.
Towies do not have to accept a cheque. In most cases, you will have to pay with cash or by credit card. If you are paying by credit card and want to dispute the matter later, write without prejudice on the credit-card slip before you sign. Keep your receipt: you may need it if you file a claim in the Disputes Tribunal.
If you get into your car, effectively gaining possession and control of it, a tow-truck driver must release it.
However, most tow-truck operators will attempt to charge you a call-out fee if they have already broken into your car in order to hook it up. You do not have to pay.
Only a police officer or traffic warden has the power to authorise the removal of any car obstructing a road or vehicle entrance, or causing some other traffic problem.
You don’t have to pay immediately in order to get your car back. Instead, you will be issued with a ticket that includes the tow fee and a stationary vehicle infringement fee that you must pay within 28 days.