LARAMIE — Slick, snowy highways are a well-known concern to anyone driving through Wyoming during winter. But for some, the worst part of sliding off the interstate or having your semitrailer blow over from the Cowboy State’s famous winds is dealing with the aftermath.
Reports of some towing companies charging excessively high prices for vehicle recovery are common throughout Wyoming and the trucking community. In an industry deregulated by the federal government — and left that way by local and state agencies — there’s a growing debate between those who view this alleged predatory practice as a serious problem and others who deny it completely.
In 2021, the Wyoming Highway Patrol received 40 complaints about towing companies, most from commercial trucking outfits, said WHP spokesperson Rodney Miears, who also is the department’s Tow & Recovery Program coordinator. That number is down from previous years, however.
The Highway Patrol responds to anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 calls a year for crashes that need a tow truck. Especially when recovering a semitrailer hauling goods across the state, the bills can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
“(Unfair pricing is) a big issue, not just in Wyoming,” said Sheila Foersch, managing director for the Wyoming Trucking Association, about the practice of padding bills.
Tow outfits then hold the trucks and their cargo until the bills are satisfied, which puts companies in a position of having to pay huge fees to get their cargo released and fulfill their shipping contracts, Foersch said.
“It’s a big issue in a lot of states,” she said, adding that the Wyoming Trucking Association hears complaints from in- and out-of-state carriers that feel they were charged excessive, unfair rates.
The problem seems to be most severe along Interstate 80, she said.
“I can track the storms across I-80 by the number of complaints I get,” Foertsch said.
Blue Line Distribution, a carrier based in Ontario, Canada, received a $77,280 bill Dec. 11 from Maps Towing and Diesel Repair Inc. of Rawlins for the recovery of a semitrailer that slid off the road on I-80 between Laramie and Rawlins, according to an invoice obtained by the Rawlins Times.
Blue Line ended up negotiating a settlement of $50,000 to retrieve its truck from the tow company’s property. Shortly thereafter, the company filed a complaint with the Wyoming Highway Patrol, demanding $45,000 of the fee be refunded.
The tow company “basically held us (for) ransom, and they got what they wanted,” said Blue Line owner Tom Della Maestra.
Despite disputing the charge, Blue Line had to pay up to regain access to its truck and cargo, he said. After going back and forth with Maps Towing and Diesel Repair and Highway Patrol, Blue Line so far has not been successful in getting a refund.
Along with the practice of overcharging, Della Maestra also is frustrated with law enforcement and the lack of industry regulation in Wyoming that allows it.
“WYDOT needs to be investigated, (and) the Wyoming Highway Patrol and everyone else who authorizes the use of this towing company,” he said.
Maps Towing and Diesel Repair declined the Boomerang’s request for comment on this story.
While it may be frustrating for trucking companies, the state agencies are tasked with enforcing the laws that are — or, in this case, aren’t — on the books, said Miears.
“WYDOT and Wyoming Highway Patrol are taking steps to rectify those issues, but in no way are we involved,” he said of the complaints about pricing. “I think there’s maybe a misconception that Wyoming Highway Patrol gets kickbacks.”
That’s a claim Miears said has no truth to it.
Complaints about the allegedly predatory practice of some tow companies also have been made for years to the Wyoming Governor’s office. The number of complaints has increased, said Michael Pearlman, spokesperson for Gov. Mark Gordon’s office.
“The governor respects the decision of lawmakers in the past who attempted to allow self-regulation; however, it appears that has not been a successful course of action on the whole,” Pearlman said. “The governor is open to finding a sensible solution to price gouging.”
According to a set of federal laws from the late 1990s and early 2000s, states are largely preempted from regulating the towing industry.
Colorado, Utah and many other states have acted on their own to put limits on pricing, but Wyoming has not. The most strict regulation the state has on pricing is a rule that towing companies must charge a “fair and reasonable” rate for their services.
While companies aren’t required to post their prices publicly, they do have to submit a fee schedule to the Highway Patrol that the public can access through an open records request.
Anyone who believes a towing or recovery fee is unfair can submit an informal complaint to the WHP, which will start a fee review process.
The agency first collects evidence that could help determine the validity of the charges. This could include photos, dispatch chronology, bill of lading, fee schedules, invoice copies and more.
If the evidence shows charges were, in fact, not fair or reasonable, Miears reaches out to the tow carrier for an explanation, and requests a change in pricing, if necessary.
While the WHP cannot force a recovery business to refund or change a bill, if a charge is deemed unfair or unreasonable, it can act if a company continues to violate the guidelines, such as providing the trucking company with its findings or suspending the company from the WHP call rotation list.
Miears said tow companies typically comply with suggested changes to avoid losing their spots on the rotation list. If trucking companies and truck owners still have problems with recovery outfits, their only remaining option is civil court.
WYDOT and the WHP were tasked with addressing overpricing through their own rules and regulations after testifying before the Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee alongside representatives from the towing industry, Pearlman said.
WYDOT has been working to put more strict regulations in place since 2017, Miears said. In 2018, two committees were formed to help WYDOT and the Highway Patrol gain expertise from the trucking industry throughout the review process. These groups are the Towing Advisory Board (TAB) and the Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC).
The DRC is a group of volunteers from the trucking and towing industries. When Miears needs more expertise to evaluate a complaint, he reaches out to the DRC for insight. He said it isn’t feasible to send the group every complaint because it would take too much time.
“If I sent them every (complaint), I wouldn’t have any members,” Miears said.
A central role of TAB was to provide expertise and opinions from the trucking and towing industries so that the new rules wouldn’t be too difficult to follow. With that help, a new set of rules and regulations was proposed in 2019 that would require more consistency across the industry.
Miears said he expected the guidelines to be in effect in 2021, but they are still under review at the Wyoming Attorney General’s office. They are expected to go out for public comment sometime this month.
“Everything takes time when there is a process, and that is no different with the proposed WYDOT rules and regulations,” said WYDOT spokesperson Doug McGee. “With that being said, WYDOT, Wyoming Highway Patrol and the towing industry are excited to see the proposed rules reviewed and finalized.”
The changes would include driver and training requirements and more stringent criteria for the WHP to add and remove companies from its call list.
The most notable change for pricing would be a clarified definition of the term “fair and reasonable.” This would make it easier for the WHP to take action when a company overcharges.
The proposed guidelines would not include price caps, but could require companies to share rates with their customers.
“You’re always going to have opposition, but, for the most part, everyone from towing and trucking to the general motoring public are all on board,” Miears said of the proposal.
Foertsch said she feels the regulations could help, but won’t be enough to resolve the issue.
Because the Highway Patrol is only responsible for a fraction of calls that go out to towing companies, the changes are unlikely to reshape the industry in the state, Foertsch said. Pricing disputes could be caused by other factors, as well, such as a breakdown of communication between the carrier, the towing operator and the insurance company.
For people involved in a crash, their insurance policies should cover at least part of the vehicle recovery costs, said Sandy Bittner, manager of Allen Insurance in Laramie.
An insurance company will typically put a limit on coverage. This could take the form of a price cap or a promise to only cover the cost of moving a vehicle to the closest available service provider. In some cases, an individual or company can buy the price cap they want covered, Bittner said.
Many insurance companies have preferred carriers they recommend to clients because of preexisting agreements on pricing. Trouble comes when clients aren’t able to use one of those recommended carriers or have to get a vehicle transported a long distance.
This issue comes up a lot in Wyoming because of the state’s low population and long distances between towns, Bittner said.
“Our carriers want a well-trained, good company towing their vehicles,” Foertsch said. “They want to make sure they’re properly towed and are not opposed to paying a fair price for that service.”
The problem, Foetrsch said, is when carriers are charged an exorbitant amount.
The topic of towing and billing is a “pretty big subject right now because trucking companies, insurance companies and the general public don’t understand how it’s working,” said Dave Rose, manager of Big Al’s Towing & Recovery in Cheyenne.
Costs for insurance, gas and tires have increased in recent years, which puts extra strain on tow operators.
Bittner explained that insurance prices also are on the rise in all areas because of losses caused by the pandemic and natural disasters.
Towing and recovery companies are getting hit with high operational costs because many insurance companies are pulling their coverage of the industry, Bittner said. This leaves the remaining insurers with a partial monopoly that allows them to increase their rates.
“I know that you could do it for free and there would still be somebody who would complain about something,” said Chris Hunt of Southern Wyoming Towing & Recovery. “Lots of people don’t realize the overhead and the liability that would go into running these trucks.”
Southern Wyoming Towing & Recovery could charge anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000 to tow a wrecked or blown-over semitrailer, depending on the situation, Hunt said.
Bad weather, scattered cargo and how severely a vehicle is off the road can impact how much a company will charge for the job, Hunt said. If a vehicle simply had a mechanical issue or ran out of gas, that would be considered a tow job and is much more predictable. If there is a crash, or a vehicle goes off the road, that would be considered a recovery, which is more complicated.
Hunt and Rose agreed that it’s difficult to give a price quote ahead of time for a recovery job because they don’t know what equipment and methods they will need until arriving on the scene.
Hunt said pricing regulations would fail to account for the diverse needs of each company and go against the idea of a free market.
“(It) doesn’t fill the bank account going out and doing good deeds,” Hunt said.
Tom Mullan, owner of I-80 Towing & Recovery, suggested that instead of more regulation, the Highway Patrol should focus on streamlining its rotation list and enforcing the rules that are already in place.
When law enforcement responds to a crash scene where a tow truck is needed, it’s common practice to call in companies based on the rotation list. If someone wants to call a specific company to comply with an insurance policy, they can do that, said Carbon County Sheriff Archie Roybal.
Roybal said his department considers factors such as pricing, availability and location when adding a company to its rotation list, but the decision ultimately comes down to personal judgment.
He said there are some companies that have earned both good and bad reputations. Some “whose prices may or may not be too high” may get left off the list.
“(There are) locals who have been providing services for a while, and (I) haven’t had complaints with people that I have, so I think it’s working well,” Roybal said.
While they may share information about certain companies, the Sheriff’s Office and Highway Patrol do not use the same rotation list, Miears said. The Highway Patrol has specific regulations that determine how companies are added and removed from its roster.
“They’ve got tow trucks out here that can’t safely tow a truck and trailer,” Mullan said, adding that he would like to see the WHP require businesses to spend a few years proving themselves to earn a regular spot in the rotation.
Tow drivers often have to deal with people who are not in their best moments. In addition to seeing people in shock, Mullan said he’s dealt with drivers who were drunk and angry about getting into trouble with law enforcement.
A few weeks ago, Mullan said he responded to a call from Wyoming Highway Patrol to tow a vehicle belonging to an older woman who was hard of hearing and disoriented about where she was going.
After calling local law enforcement about the situation and not getting a helpful response, Mullan used his own resources to pay for her motel room and find a family member’s contact information.
When people are unfamiliar with an area they’re driving through and in shock from a crash, it can be difficult for them to realize and articulate to authorities that they want to call a certain tow company, Mullan said. They would also most likely trust that a police officer will call a reliable company for them.
“If you’re not used to dealing with authoritarian figures, you’re going to be intimidated,” Mullan said.
Mullan said he feels he is losing business because officers refer to the rotation list, rather than calling a company drivers would choose for insurance, pricing and safety reasons.
“I would rather charge a more reasonable rate. My average is 10 wrecks a month from customers calling me,” he said, adding that the “cops might let me go after one. Therefore, I’ve lost 90% of my revenue.”