The Hook: San Francisco Reboots Towing

The disposal of unclaimed vehicles -- estimated by some reports to be as many as one quarter of those towed -- is a big source of revenue.

by / July 9, 2009

Two cars collide at an intersection, partially blocking the street. A police officer radios a dispatcher for a tow truck. The dispatcher calls a towing company based on zone or rotation, then the towing company radio dispatches a vehicle. The verbal data exchange increases the chance of error and in the event of multiple calls, the tow can be missed and require another round of communications. Or the vehicle dispatched may arrive ill equipped for the requirements of the situation. In San Francisco, until a few years ago, it took an average of 70 minutes to get a truck on scene, during which the road may be blocked and a police officer must be posted.

And the complexity continues even after the truck arrives and removes the vehicle. During this process, a check must be conducted for a stolen vehicle or outstanding warrants. Fees for towing and storage must be assessed. If the owner appears to reclaim the vehicle, the owner pays, the paperwork is completed, funds are collected, and the vehicle is released. If the owner fails to appear, then the vehicle might be sold at auction and the revenue -- or cost recovery as some jurisdictions prefer to call it -- is handled.

In the past, lack of accountability and transparency have led to corruption and so-called "predatory towing," which in a few cases have become little more than auto theft and extortion. Once an impound lot owner has a vehicle in custody, additional charges can be tacked on, and with cash changing hands, the jurisdiction may have no idea what the motorist paid, what the jurisdiction's portion of that should be, or even how many vehicles were actually towed, returned or disposed of.

The disposal of unclaimed vehicles -- estimated by some reports to be as many as one quarter of those towed -- is a big source of revenue. If the impound lot can sell the vehicles or parts at a good price, there is little incentive to return the vehicles to their owners -- a conflict of interest described by one source as "having the taxidermist watch the pets."

San Francisco

The City and County of San Francisco wanted to modernize its complex towing network, make the process financially transparent, and track towed vehicles throughout the process. It wanted to remove conflicts of interest and complexity. The city and county signed an agreement with AutoReturn, to manage and coordinate the transportation, storage, payment and other logistics.

The browser-based system starts with digital communications, and depending on the jurisdiction's requirements, can begin at the police officer's computer terminal, as is the case in San Diego, Calif. In San Francisco there is some verbal communication, said a company spokesman, but then the data stream is integrated digitally. AutoReturn equips contracted towing company vehicles with the devices necessary to enable dispatch of trucks based on real-time location and equipment needs.

Police departments can interact with the system in three different ways, said a company spokesman. They can phone the company and the company dispatch center does the data entry. One city is starting to enter computer requests in the field, and one Eastern county will have the company's screens on dispatcher's desks and the county will do the entry. It depends on what the jurisdiction wants, said a company spokesperson, and the sophistication of the jurisdiction's computer aided dispatch system.

In any case, the public Web site is populated with the current status of the vehicle as soon as the company gets the data.

Customer Service?

"Customer service" and towing vehicles may sound mutually exclusive, but according to company spokespersons, customer service is modeled after the best car-rental practices. "If you walk in and take a number, said a spokesperson, "the average wait time is 73 seconds." By phone -- and the company receives 10,000 calls a month -- the wait time averages 11 seconds. Credit-card-style swipers capture driver's license information which increases speed and reduces errors, and digital tracking of vehicles ensures that they can be found and that standards are followed.

Fast service, transparent financial management and a Web-based interface will not remove the sting of having a vehicle towed, but the City and County of San Francisco has improved the coordination, efficiency and transparency of the process.

Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government