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by Halle Stockton
PITTSBURGH--In April 2010, the Pittsburgh City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to protect motorists from aggressive tow-truck drivers.
Council members had heard one too many stories about price gouging by towers, or vehicles being snatched in “spiderweb” lots, those with lurking tow-truck drivers and confusing parking rules.
Although some of the practices already violated city ordinances, the city had no way to enforce its rules. So council established a business license for towing operators, and a new set of rules for towing vehicles improperly parked in restricted lots.
The licensing requirement was signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl within a week.
Nearly three years later, however, the licenses have not been issued.
That has left drivers like Elliot Gerard with little recourse when they have complaints about towing companies.
Gerard, of Monroeville, parked in a private lot designated for medical offices at Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill last spring. According to his wife, Alicia Gerard, as her husband took their infant son from the car seat to stop at a nearby Starbucks, he locked eyes with the driver of a Travis Towing truck parked a few spots away.
When he returned minutes later, his Nissan Rogue was chained to the truck’s ramp.
According to Alicia Gerard, the tow-truck driver told Gerard that to get his car back, he’d need to produce $110 in cash on the spot — or pay $150 at the impound lot.
Such an additional charge would violate the city code, which sets the maximum cost at $110, and does not allow extra charges or storage fees for the first 12 hours.
Gerard asked the driver to let him take his son’s safety seat and diaper bag from the car because he didn’t have the cash to pay, Alicia Gerard said, but the driver refused.
Ultimately, the driver told Gerard he could pay $115 by credit card, which he did, and his car was not towed. In 2000, the city code was amended to make towing companies accept credit cards as well as cash.
“Elliot was at fault because he didn’t see the sign, but the tow-truck driver’s actions were mischievous and calculating,” Alicia Gerard said.
Mark Travis, owner of Travis Towing, said the situation unfolded differently, but he would not elaborate.
“It’s just very popular to demonize us,” he said of the towing industry. “It’s an accepted form of bullying.”