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.


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Wayne Hanson  |  Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government