Operators who don’t tow the line

2010-09-18 09:17

It is stressful to be involved in a car ­accident. But the problem can be made worse by unscrupulous tow-truck drivers who prey on people when they are ­vulnerable.

The summer holidays are a peak season for accidents because more cars are on the roads and it tends to rain heavily in some parts of the country, making the roads slippery.

The first people to arrive at accident scenes are usually tow-truck operators.

Public affairs manager of the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), Gary Ronald, says: “If you consider that one in 10 drivers will be involved in a car accident every year, consumers need to know what to do. They need to establish the credibility of the tow operator at the accident scene.”

Sam Tebele, deputy director of the Gauteng Consumer Affairs, says consumers encounter many problems that are associated with towing:

  • People are made to believe that the car cannot be driven and needs to be towed;

  • Drivers are misled into believing that their insurer has authorised the towing. (Insurers do not pay for towing if it is done by an operator they did not ­approve);

  • If a consumer is seriously injured, some operators sign or get innocent ­bystanders to sign the towing invoice ­under the pretext that they were witnesses and later claim that the consumer had authorised someone to sign on their ­behalf;

  • Towing the car to a certain panelbeater to get commission, which can be as high as 20% of the repair costs; and
  • Charging exorbitant towing costs that are not market related.

However, there are credible tow operators who provide a valuable service to the public. On its website, Arrive Alive lists some of the good work done by towing companies as:

  • Often being the first to arrive at the scene of an accident and providing ­assistance or first-aid to disorientated or injured accident victims; and

  • Directing traffic and working with the authorities to clear the accident scene and restore normal traffic flow.

Tow operators are regulated by ­industry codes administered by the South African Towing and Recovery ­Association (Satra).

Tebele says because of the lack of regulations dealing with the conduct of tow-truck drivers in the current consumer protection law, consumers’ only form of redress is contained in industry codes.

Arrive Alive says the benefit of choosing an operator who is a member of an industry association is that the company is bound by a code of conduct which contains consumer-protection provisions.

Satra chairperson Andre van der Merwe says consumers are free to contact the organisation to report operators who ­behave badly.

He mentions that Satra has investigated and found that some companies charge as much as R3 500 for towing services when the average market rate is R2 500 within a 20km radius. This is ­prohibited by the industry’s code.

It is expected that the gap in regulation will be addressed when the new Consumer Protection Act comes into operation next month.

The act requires, for instance, that all the fine details on any contract be ­disclosed upfront to the consumer so that they can make informed decisions.

Before the act comes into effect drivers must try to remain calm after an accident and ensure they make wise decisions.

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