TRENTON - When Hilda Berry's fiance parked his tractor-trailer in a vacant store lot near Newark one night last year, he never imagined it would cost $6,350 in cash to get the rig back from a tow lot five hours later.
Alarmed by similar stories from drivers across the state who say they have been ripped off by unscrupulous tow truck operators, the Division of Consumer Affairs is backing legislation that would crack down on towing abuses. The measure was approved unanimously by the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee yesterday, and next goes to the full Assembly for a vote.
"There is no consistent handling of tows from private property," Consumer Affairs Acting Director Stephen Nolan told the panel before the vote. "The industry is left to do what it wants."
The proposed law establishes minimum standards for tow truck operators statewide, replacing a hodgepodge of municipal and county regulations.
Assemblyman Robert Gordon, the bill's sponsor, said he believed nearly everyone had either been ripped off by a tow operator or knew someone who had. It's a complaint heard too often in New Jersey: a vehicle towed away from a private lot, then a hefty fee to get it back.
"It's totally unregulated," Gordon said. "It's basically the wild, wild West."
Consumer Affairs fielded 350 towing-related complaints from 2000 to 2005, but Nolan said he believed that was a tiny fraction of the number of drivers who had been victimized.
"Most people just want to get their car back and go home," he said.
The measure would add New Jersey to the states that have moved to stop towing ripoffs. California and New York have instituted minimum standards for tow truck operators, and Virginia created a licensing board to oversee the industry.
John Glass, president of the Garden State Towman's Association, which represents 250 towing and storage operators, said he supported the concept of regulating private-property tows but was concerned that overly broad legislation could hurt operators.
"The association has never really had a problem with regulating towing, so long as the towers can survive financially," Glass said.
The proposed law, known as the Predatory Towing Prevention Act, would require towing companies to register with the state and file fee schedules that would be posted on the Internet.
Towing and storage fees would be deemed excessive if they exceeded 150 percent of the average fee for the service in the county.
The proposal also mandates that no-parking signs be posted in private lots warning that violators will be towed. It would require tow operators to unhitch vehicles if the owner arrived before the tow.