Road Worrier

Road Worrier: What happens when you're towed away

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comAugust 27, 2012 

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Shannon McCabe had two black eyes and both legs in casts after she blew a tire and wrecked her pickup on the Durham Freeway. Roadside Towing, the wrecker service summoned by a state trooper, told her falsely that the vehicle was totaled and undriveable -- and said she could get her stuff out of the truck if she would just turn over the title. The bad behavior did not end when she paid the $300 towing bill. To protect other drivers from abuse, McCabe says the Highway Patrol should remove Roadside from its wrecker rotation list.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

— Shannon McCabe had two black eyes and casts on both ankles when she called a tow company to check on the pickup truck she had wrecked the day before.

She is not happy about how things worked out.

The State Highway Patrol is investigating her complaint. Her dispute illuminates the often-strained transactions involving drivers who have accidents and the people who earn a living by towing their wrecked cars away.

McCabe lives in Durham and works as a case manager at a Raleigh homeless shelter. She was driving to work Aug. 14 when she blew a tire and crashed into trees on the Durham Freeway median in Research Triangle Park. The trooper summoned Durham-based Roadside Towing & Recovery to haul away her 1999 Dodge Ram.

The next day, the guy at Roadside told McCabe her truck was probably worth less than the cost of repairing it. Her insurance did not cover damage on her own vehicle, so the repair would come out of her pocket.

He proposed taking the truck off her hands.

“He said, ‘Well, your bill is already $300,’ ” said McCabe, 36. “‘If you just bring us the title, we’ll let you get all your stuff out of it. And don’t worry about what you owe us.’

“I thought: That doesn’t sound right,” McCabe said.

The Highway Patrol has a rotation system for calling tow-truck drivers to clean up wreck sites and remove disabled vehicles. Roadside Towing is one of about 20 on the list for Durham County crashes. Durham police have a similar list, but it doesn’t include Roadside.

“We’re prohibited as troopers from offering one company over another, so we have a rotation list,” said the patrol’s Lt. David Henderson. “The public thinks we set the amounts these companies can charge, but it’s nothing like that. You can’t dictate how somebody does business, but you do want them to meet standards.”

In exchange for giving them this business, the Highway Patrol is supposed to see that the wrecker companies follow rules with at least minimal consumer safeguards. The Highway Patrol rules include:

• Post a fee schedule for towing and other charges, and stick with it. Storage charges cannot start until the day after the vehicle was towed from a wreck site.

• Allow inspection of the vehicle at any time during business hours.

• Return all property stored in a vehicle when the owner requests it, whether or not the towing bill has been paid or will be paid.

• Perform the work in a “safe, timely, efficient and courteous manner,” avoiding abusive and disrespectful behavior.

McCabe and Eric Warsaw, one of the owners of Roadside Towing, disagree about whether the wrecker company followed the rules.

McCabe sent a friend to examine the pickup and pay her bill. Warsaw says his employees refused to let her friend drive it on the small, fenced lot on Gilbert Street in East Durham.

“This person was irate and upset when we told him we weren’t going to let him take someone else’s car,” Warsaw said. “He made some comments to one of my staff members who didn’t feel comfortable having him inside our perimeter fence.”

That’s the sort of disagreement the two sides had that day, separated by a tall fence topped with shimmering razor wire. Each side now accuses the other of ill-tempered behavior.

McCabe called another company to tow the truck to a friend’s driveway. She went to Roadside, hobbling on crutches, and paid the $300 bill.

The obvious damage included the front bumper and quarter panels, and a blown rear tire. Still, they wouldn’t let her examine her pickup.

“They said, ‘When the other tow truck pulls it out, you can look at it,’ ” McCabe said.

Warsaw said his employees were concerned about her physical handicap, and feared she might injure herself if she entered the lot.

After an hour of haggling, McCabe says, a Roadside employee abruptly drove her truck off the lot, bumped over the curb on the bare wheel rim, and parked it half a block away.

“And he comes up to my window and, like, throws the keys at me,” she said. “Driving erratically over a curb on a flattened tire and rim is not an acceptable thing to do.”

Warsaw says security video footage shows the same thing – all at a slow, careful pace.

McCabe summoned Durham police. Warsaw showed officers the video. They told McCabe it was a not a criminal matter.

McCabe paid the bill one day after the crash. Highway Patrol rules indicate she should have paid $35 for one day of storage, but her itemized receipt shows a charge of $70. Warsaw says she’ll be reimbursed if she was overcharged.

“She has made a lot of accusations,” Warsaw said. “Her accusations are baseless.”

Highway Patrol officials said they occasionally field complaints about tow-truck companies but rarely remove a company from rotation. First Sgt. Cary Cain, who ordered an investigation, said he saw nothing in McCabe’s complaint to warrant disqualifying Roadside Towing.

McCabe shared her complaint with friends on her neighborhood email listserv, and with the Road Worrier.

“When somebody has an accident on the side of the highway, they need to know their vehicle is going to be OK wherever it goes,” McCabe said.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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