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End ‘first available,’ or ‘first-on-scene’ towing procedure, company owner says

Written by Norris McDonald

Contracting-out one of the best ways to solve tow-truck industry’s problems, Abrams president says

Awhile ago, I wrote a column about tow trucks. I specifically talked about how, when there’s a crash on the highway, there’s a race between trucks to get there because the first to reach the scene gets the tow.

Ambulances used to do that. They were privately owned and they’d race to get to a crash scene first because if there was a fatality, the first-on-scene would get the body. Some of those ambulances were owned by funeral homes; other parlours paid the ambulance driver for the delivery.

Mike Harris put an end to that in 1998 with what was called the Local Services Realignment, which resulted in the EMS ambulance system we see almost everywhere these days. And at least one tow-truck company president thinks the current government has to act as decisively to end the free-for-all on the roads that exists today.

Joey Gagne is the owner and president of Abrams Towing Services. Abrams has locations in the GTA, Hamilton, Windsor, Ottawa – just about everywhere – and has been in business since 1984. For years, Gagne was president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, which works on the legislation process with government. He stepped aside last year but remains involved, he says, because he has a vested interest.

For years, there’s been a problem with accident clearance on, particularly, the 400-Series highways. That’s where the money is. You have established, honest, tow companies that have been around for what seems like forever and they frequently have their business stolen from them by poorly trained, opportunistic, cowboy towers who swoop in, grab the damaged vehicle and haul if off to unscrupulous body shop operators who refuse to release it until obscene amounts of money are paid. Tony Tracy, father of Canadian racing great Paul Tracy, once called the Star to complain about bring ripped off for close to a thousand dollars for a tow of less than a kilometre.

Since that column appeared, I heard from a lawyer who spends just about all his time in court on behalf of Canada’s big banks, trying to get those cars and light trucks released from liens. And from Gagne, who felt I owed the honest towers a column to tell their side of the story.

I didn’t want to get involved in this. This tow-truck controversy is more the beat of crime reporter Peter Edwards, or the Star’s crack investigative reporting team, But since I did tip my toe in it once a month or so ago, in which I urged the Ford government to take over the industry, I agreed I owed the honest industry equal time. But after today, this is it – for me.

Gagne, in his role as president of the tow association, was on the committee that came up with the most recent set of regulations that became law in 2018 and stipulated that tow trucks had to have their rates posted, and had to take credit cards as payment, and that sort of thing.

But Gagne, in our wide-ranging interview in which he talked about his company’s rigorous training program and how a few bad apples are not representative of what’s essentially been a long-established, honest, mom-and-pop industry, said that particular piece of legislation failed to do what still must be done to close the loophole that has enabled this wild-west atmosphere to proliferate and that’s the “first-on-scene” or “first available” system. That’s when the rest of us who haven’t crashed but are driving along the highway are passed by one or more tow trucks rushing to the accident, demolishing the speed limit in the process.

“It creates a feeding frenzy,” said Gagne, “and the situation will never improve until that’s addressed. The sharks come out of nowhere and they just start chewing on everything. There are consumer abuse issues and now criminality because the money people are getting from this first-available process is becoming organized crime and it’s a process that has to change.”

Gagne talked about a particular incident that took place in the city of Toronto in recent weeks.

“There was an accident at Bathurst and Lawrence,” he said. “There was a tractor-trailer rollover and a truck and a TTC bus were involved. There were more (tow) trucks than you could imagine. Fifteen of them. It was insane. These trucks were all racing to get there first. God forbit somebody gets run over. With COVID, fewer vehicles are on the road and so it’s making it worse.”

Gagne said the answer is for contracts to be tendered that provide a fast service, an affordable service and a safe service.  “Those three things are the key pillars of this process,” he said. “Montreal has a series of contracts on their expressways where companies are responsible for small portions of the road. In the States, they have the traffic incident management system  (TIMS) and they have dedicated, trained operators, independent businesses, with the responsibility to have the equipment on call and available 24/7, to clean the roadways quickly and safely at an affordable price.

“It’s not complicated, It’s just that the politicians need the political will to enforce it.”

Premier Doug Ford has struck a committee to once again look into the tow industry. He went so far recently as to point at the TV cameras and warn the criminal element that “we’re coming for you.” So how should the government do it?

“I’m not a big government guy,” Gagne said. “I’m a business owner; I always think private industry can do a better job. But you can’t let private industry run amok; there has to be some rules. There are things you can do and things you can’t. You can’t do these things that are money-driven. Cars are wrecked, people are maybe injured. Those are the important things.”

Gagne acknowledges that the police, particularly the OPP, like the current system because their primary concern – after tending to anyone injured – is to get traffic moving.

But if they could depend on contracted towers, like the Montreal and U.S. experiences, Gagne is convinced they wouldn’t have any – or at least not as many – problems.

And it would be better for the consumer.

Asked how a driver who’s had a collision that requires a tow can protect themselves today, he said:

“Ask the police officer, can I call my own tow truck? And if he says no, then you’ve got a problem. You should be able to call your own tow truck – Abrams, CAA, your garage. If there’s a tow truck already there, you can deal with him but the first thing you want is a document from him saying this is what I’m going to charge you, this is where I’m going to take you and he signs it and you sign it and you get the police officer to agree that he or she’s seen it. Take the officer’s info; get their badge number on the document. On our invoices, there’s a place to sign that gives the driver the authorization to tow. That was in Bill 15 (legislation that passed in 2014). Sign it before, not after. Make sure it says the location of the pickup and the cost.

“But this is where you have to be careful. The driver – and these outlaw guys are sweet talkers – they’ll say, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll bill your insurance company. Let me take your car to my yard.’ They’ll offer you the world and most people will fall for it because they’re already vulnerable, they aren’t in any position to negotiate because they’re in shock.

“You want the tower to take your car to a place where you feel safe. It could be a police pound, or your dealership or a local garage. That’s why the police have to take a bigger role here; they’re the voice of reason.”

So there you go, premier. Ban accident chasing and contract out responsibility and many – not all, but many – of the towing problems in Ontario will be solved. Joey Gagne says so.

And that’s it for me and towing columns.

This column originally appeared

in Toronto Star Wheels