Bill has watered-down consumer protection from tow operators

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After nearly two hours of debate, legislators moved Friday toward giving consumers more protection against tow truck companies that charge high fees and whisk cars away quickly from no parking zones on private property.

The House Business and Labor Committee voted 9-4 to advance HB115 to the full House.

Its sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said it is a watered-down compromise that for now will require tow companies to accept credit or debit cards and distribute a bill of rights to people whose cars were towed. It will also require state study of what fees are reasonable — with limits possible in the future.

It grew out of an experience by Provo Mayor John Curtis when he asked residents through his blog for any bad experiences they had with towing. "I expected to have a couple dozen stories," he said. "Instead I had more than 700 after just 24 hours … I had to shut the blog down."

Curtis told the committee the punishment does not fit the crime when cars are towed for illegal parking. He said it often costs owners $250 to $300, while a city parking ticket costs only $15. "All this is taking place without any proof of guilt."

Ogden City Attorney Gary Williams said his city also receives complaints that many cars are "gone in 60 seconds" by parking illegally for even short times by some tow companies that sit and wait for cars to park in common problem spots.

Other cities supported a move to allow capping fees that tow companies may charge, but said they supported what they thought was a compromise with tow companies for the current bill. But numerous tow companies testified that they had not been consulted, and opposed it.

Neil Schultz, president of the Ogden-Weber Towing Association, said his group opposes the requirement to accept credit cards. He said tow operators have found that many customers try to cancel or contest credit card payments for towing, leading to expensive delays and fights.

He and several other tow companies also said they are not to blame for parking problems, and cities have more of the blame by not requiring more adequate parking for developments that they approve.