New Philadelphia rules target post-accident tow-truck wars

Posted: July 23, 2010

News of traffic accidents in Philadelphia is no longer being dispatched over the airwaves. City officials hope the new policy will lead tow-truck drivers to ditch their police scanners and stop harassing motorists.

Instead, police are being alerted to accidents through written electronic messages delivered directly to laptop computers in their cars.

Additionally, radio dispatchers have been instructed to call for a tow truck, if warranted at an accident scene, when they inform police of the accident. Until now, tow trucks were not requested until officers were on site.

Both practices took effect Thursday, a consequence of the historically aggressive activity of tow-truck companies that this week resulted in gunfire, sending one driver to the hospital, as well as the torching of 13 cars in one company's care.

"I don't think there is a thing [the tow-truck companies] can do about" the new policies, Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens said.

Exceptions will be made for collisions with serious injuries, he said.

Police radio is generally more effective because officers who hear the calls and are near an accident sometimes arrive sooner than officers who receive a specific call for help.

"It's a trade-off, and we are going to have to weigh certain factors," Gaittens said. "We are not looking to replace police-radio transmissions and tie up the [computers]."

This week's criminal activities marked a low in the decades-long struggle to better regulate the tow-truck operators, some of whom descend on accident victims and persuade shaken-up drivers to agree to services that often result in exorbitant bills.

One of those allegedly involved in this week's violence surrendered to police Thursday evening. Jose LaTorre Jr. turned himself in around 6:30 at 25th District headquarters in North Philadelphia, Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, said. LaTorre faces charges of aggravated assault and related offenses.

LaTorre, a son of the owner of J & Sons Auto Body, arrived at the scene of a North Philadelphia accident on Monday to claim the tow job, though he was driving his Cadillac Escalade. When a driver for Mystical Towing showed up in a tow truck, a dispute erupted over which company would get the job. LaTorre allegedly then shot the Mystical driver in the left thigh and fled.

At least two City Council members are seeking to impose stronger rules for notifying tow companies, including Frank Rizzo, whose 2008 legislation resulted in the creation of a vetted list of tow-truck operators called by police on a rotating basis.

Told of the new policy minimizing transmissions on the airwaves, Rizzo - who suggested that change to Gaittens early Thursday - said: "That absolutely solves 99 percent of the problems. This pulls the plug on their ability to get information."

Nonetheless, some tow-truck operators are not convinced the new policies will change much - or that much change is needed.

"It's always worked smooth for me. I don't have any problems with the wreck chasers," said Giovanni Salvatore, a dispatcher at Towing By the Hook. "A lot of times, there is no other tower there but me."

On the other hand, Jeff Hartka of Jeff's Towing Service, said the rotation program was a failure to begin with. In the two years it has been in effect, he said, "Nobody has ever called me. Not once."

Councilman Jim Kenney is calling for additional changes.

His legislation, which he said he plans to introduce when Council reconvenes in September, would require dispatchers to contact tow-truck drivers when they call for officers - and would institute a fine for other tow trucks showing up on the scene.

Given the current controversy, Kenney said, he would like the current rotation list suspended, and instead have police use the same tow-truck operators they use to retrieve stolen cars.

"They've been vetted, they are insured, and their drivers have background checks," he said.

Motorists who break down or have accidents should call AAA if they have it, or for roadside assistance through their car dealer, Jana Tidwell, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman, said.

Another option is for drivers to call their auto insurance companies, which usually can recommend local tow-truck companies, she said.

"We've known for many years that this is a serious problem in Philadelphia," she said. "Unfortunately, the rotational tow system is not being utilized as intended."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.

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