WASHINGTON, June 4, 2013 —Tow trucks are ubiquitous. They arrive when you need them, when you do not need them, when you least expect them, and they appear to operate in the shadows and periphery of the everyday world. Trucks seem to appear out of nowhere and disappear to somewhere.
Riding along with Craig Footman, owner of First Choice Transport in the Washington D.C. area, we learn what the job, entails how it operates, the hard work and long hours it takes to be successful in a competitive industry. Footman feels the industry has an undeserved poor reputation.
Craig Footman - There are some unscrupulous operators in towing but most of us are fair, honest and serve the public in ways they never think of.
Paul Mountjoy - What ways do you serve?
CF - We are there if you break down on a lonely road or stuck in heavy, dangerous traffic and save people in bad weather. We clear accidents and auto breakdowns to keep traffic flowing.
PM - What of the unpopular ways?
CF - Impounding illegally parked cars, impounding cars for non-payment, which is very dangerous work. People know they parked illegally and people know they did not make their payments, yet when there are consequences, they take their anger out on me.
As we drive down the interstate, the crackling of the dispatch radio, the cold rain, the smell of diesel fuel, Footman’s love for loud country music all makes it necessary to yell at one another to overcome the noise. The entire environment assaults the senses.
PM - Do you normally start at 4 a.m.?
CF - Yes. We have to be prepared for early rush hour traffic. We generally work into the night to fulfill our obligation. We are on call 24/7 and if we run late, we risk losing our contracts.
PM - Where do you get your business from?
CF - County and state police, apartment complexes with parking restrictions, auto clubs and what we call straight calls that come from private sources by our reputation. Auto shops cannot afford to own tow trucks anymore, so we have handshake agreements to do their towing for them.
PM - Many people complain about price. Is this a legitimate complaint?
CF - Not at all. Trucks range from about 80 to 250 grand. The payments run around 3 grand a month. Our lot where
we put cars must be secured with tall, covered fencing, security cameras and cost $800 a month.
Auto clubs make us carry enough insurance to cover the tow truck, the car on the back which may be an 80 grand Mercedes, the people in the truck and whatever damage the truck may do. Auto clubs require a one million dollar umbrella insurance so the cost of insurance ranges from 10 to 12 grand per truck per year.
Fuel for diesel is expensive and I only get about 6 miles per gallon. My daily cost for fuel may be a couple hundred a day on a busy day. We figure after all is said and done, we make about $30 to $35 dollars on a $150 tow, before taxes. Drivers get paid a third of the gross on each tow. Auto clubs pay notoriously low rates. Sometimes we can end up making $6 on a service call.
PM - How do you schedule tows?
CF - Most are not. They come at random and the problem is we must guarantee police call arrival in 45 minutes or we can lose our contract. The same with auto clubs, insurance companies and illegal parking matters. If we take too long, our competitor will get the business, but they have similar problems
If we are already towing a car, we are automatically behind schedule. It takes an average of one and one half hours to do a call so if you have three to do, someone is going to be angry and dissatisfied waiting so long. Everyone wants you there right now.
Footman has to lie on the pavement in the rain time and time again. His legs are often hugging the lane next to him with traffic coming within 10 feet of his legs at 70 miles per hour. He lies on his back to lace the towing chains.
The next call is dismal. It is a traffic fatality. Inside an upside down Dodge is a middle-aged woman strapped in her seat belt, arms hanging over her head in mid-air.
CF - The family of this person is going about their everyday life not knowing their loved one is dead from a violent crash. This saddens me. I see this often. It is worse when it is a teen who was drinking.
The day concludes at 10 p.m. Footman is too tired to drive any loner, having done 13 calls. He washes his arms and hands form having to clean the fatal crash site. It is the tower’s job. The bloodied car rests in the lot. Footman will sleep in the lot trailer.
Just prior to concluding the interview, a police call comes in. A drunk driver is going to jail and Footman must impound the car. He must go. He cannot say “No.”
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.
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