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Originally published December 3, 2011 at 8:21 PM | Page modified February 11, 2012 at 9:41 PM

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$800 towing charge? That's nothin'!

The winner for worst price-gouging tow bill: $1,400 for a single tow. In which the driver's only "crime" was getting in a fender bender.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The other day when I wrote about a guy who got whacked with an $800 towing bill, a surprisingly large bunch of readers shrugged.

The guy deserved it, some said. If he hadn't parked illegally, problem solved.

The idea that we might need a law regulating towing rates — currently they can charge whatever they please — also took a laissez-faire lashing from some readers.

"We don't need any more laws on the books," wrote Don Clark, of Kirkland. "If you don't park where you are not supposed to park, you don't have to worry about towing costs."

OK, the guy, Chris Swanicke, was not blameless. He admitted he parked illegally and deserved the tow.

But apparently $800 isn't exorbitant enough to get much sympathy. So let me announce the results of my little unscientific survey, in which more than 400 readers recounted — sometimes in exclamation-point-laden detail that went on for pages — their own towing horror stories.

The winner for worst price-gouging tow bill: $1,400 for a single tow. In which the driver's only "crime" was getting in a fender bender.

It happened in late October, on Interstate 5 in Seattle. A customer driving a rental Subaru Impreza was disabled with radiator damage on the side of the road. As the customer got on the phone to the rental-car company, a truck for Citywide Towing pulled up. Before anyone had called for one.

What luck, the people involved figured. A tow truck is here. The car was towed a few miles away to the tow company's yard, and then the next day towed again to a local auto-repair shop.

Then the bill came, for $1,788. That's $1,399 for the first tow, charged at a rate that would make many a corporate lawyer blush: $650 an hour. And $389 for the second tow.

The rental-car company shared the bill's details with me but didn't want to be named. When I called the trooper for the State Patrol who oversees all registered tow companies in King County, he said he was familiar with the incident.

"That was a high bill," recalled Trooper Darrin Helton. "But I've seen much higher."

Higher than $1,400 for a single tow?

"I've seen it go over $2,000," he said.

I guess the shruggers were right: $800 isn't that big of a deal after all!

Helton said it doesn't take much to reach two grand when you're billing at $650 an hour. Citywide — the only local tow company with posted rates that high — is the same company that towed Swanicke for $800. Helton said if your car breaks down on I-5 and you use a tow truck on the state's contracted call list, you'll pay a negotiated rate of $177 an hour.

But companies not on the list are free to do highway towing at any rates they wish (as long as they first file with the state).

"Do they have the right to charge $650 an hour? They do," Helton said. "They could put it at a million dollars an hour if they wanted to."

Whoa, let's not give them any ideas there.

Helton — and about a dozen insurance adjusters who wrote me — said tow bills tend to soar if the tow truck is not limited by a negotiated contract.

"The deal is, if they think insurance is picking up the bill, as is usually the case when a vehicle is being towed to a body shop, they will charge $500, $700 bucks or more," said one claims adjuster. "If you call and ask for the price ahead of time, then suddenly their rate becomes a lot more reasonable."

A few readers sent in towing bills of more than $1,000, but all involved cases in which the cars were stored at the towing yard for days to weeks, incurring large storage fees.

Dozens of readers sent in stories of simple, in-and-out tows in the $500 to $700 range. Most were like the $800 tow in that they were towed from private property — though sometimes wrongly.

"Seattle isn't the only city in Washington where this happens," writes Bill Bredice, of Kirkland.

Bredice's wife was competing in a triathlon in Lake Stevens when out of the corner of her eye she saw a tow truck carting off her car. The bill: $543, from Top Notch Towing.

Someone had claimed the car was on private property, though it wasn't. A Snohomish District Court judge eventually ruled the tow was improper. But Bredice still needs to collect the tow fee plus more than $2,000 in legal costs from the person who complained.

At least he's got his car. Nick Lallas and Veronica O'Shea, who live in a Belltown condo, returned from a monthlong business trip last month to find their 1997 BMW was not only gone from their condo parking garage. It had already been sold off at auction by Citywide Towing.

"We feel like our car was stolen," O'Shea says. "Only the police won't investigate because it was towed. It's like a black hole."

The couple has a parking spot in the garage, so how their car ended up towed at all is a bit of a mystery (it's possible, they say, that they mistakenly parked on the wrong floor of the garage.)

Last week, after I asked the state for the impound records on the car, the Department of Licensing launched an investigation because it discovered some indications the car may have been auctioned off sooner than the law allows.

The state also said last week it plans to review Swanicke's $800 towing to see if the law was followed on that one.

"I think without the notoriety of this story, for the average person this would not have happened," Swanicke says, of the help he's now receiving.

Exactly. We've blundered into this topic and barely scratched the surface. Yet we've got usurious, gouging rates, and at least one car sold in an auction that might now have to be somehow unwound.

I'm not saying all tow companies do these things, or even most.

But seriously — does this still sound like an industry that needs no further oversight?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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