Over 20 tow truck drivers in yellow safety vests appeared en masse at Harris County Commissioners Court on July 19 to oppose a county contract for towing management services.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey requested a discussion about an agreement with AutoReturn, a San Francisco-based company that provides towing management services. The company acts as a link between law enforcement and tow truck companies, and sends the closest available tow truck to the site, preventing a competition between different companies to arrive first, according to AutoReturn’s website.
During public comment, tow truck drivers said the change from the three-wrecker rule at a scene—in which drivers have a one in three chance of being selected to execute a given tow—to AutoReturn’s app is making accident scenes less safe, directing money away from local businesses and creating chaos.
Mark Denson, president of Houston-based On Site Towing, said more drivers are rushing to scenes now than ever before.
“Trucks are able to move further distances and at greater speeds and congregate in greater amounts on an accident scene now, which is doing the exact opposite of what this program was supposed to do,” Denson said.
Other tow truck operators explained they are usually first to the scene of an accident and serve as a protective barrier from onrushing traffic. Under AutoReturn’s policy, drivers must maintain a minimum distance of 200 yards from a scene, according to Jesse Razo, major of the patrol support services bureau with the sheriff’s office.
Tristyn Hernadez from EMT Towing and Recovery based out of Kingwood said the additional distance affects a driver’s ability to provide other emergency services.
“Since this started, everything has been out of whack. [In the past], officers [were] able to call us tow truck drivers on the radio for a friendly wrecker with a lockout kit. A child locked in a vehicle, they’re able to call us,” Hernandez said. “We’re able to hurry up and get there before the ambulance or fire department even gets the call. Since AutoReturn comes, we don’t have that option no more.”
Razo dialed into the meeting with both the chief technology officer and service manager for AutoReturn and said the sheriff’s office and the company would look into reducing the minimum distance to 100 feet, which is the requirement under the three-wrecker rule.
The county executed a service agreement with the company last October for a pilot period of one year—at no cost to the county—to manage towing for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in police-initiated tows, owner-requested tows and private property impounds. According to County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, the program is operating in one patrol district right now in a small area of unincorporated Harris County. He acknowledged the contract had not been fully vetted and did not include input from the towing industry.
“Our outreach wasn’t what it needed to be, in fairness,” Gonzalez said, joining the meeting virtually. “Once we started hearing a lot of concerns from the industry, from some of the advocacy groups and others, we did step up.”
Gonzalez asked for patience as his office continues to “work through any kinks,” and said that change can be difficult when people are used to the status quo.
Per the service agreement provided by the office of county administration, AutoReturn’s services are funded by a $22 administrative fee paid by the towing companies or storage facilities, which is then billed to the vehicle operator. Drivers pay another $5.50 to the storage facilities or to the towing company if it takes the vehicle elsewhere, according to Thomas Gilliland, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
The agreement stated that, in total, drivers would have to pay $173 to the county once the program is fully implemented, less than the city of Houston’s rate of $175.50. The county rate is $145.50, according to the county’s tow truck ordinance.
Commissioners did not take formal action on the AutoReturn issue, but Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia met with parties from the sheriff’s office, tow truck companies and AutoReturn during the court’s lunch break to facilitate discussion. After the break, he reported they were moving in the right direction.
AutoReturn operates in Austin, Fort Worth, Round Rock and San Antonio.