Get trucked

Culture_shockImagine stopping for a coffee on the way to work and returning to find your car hooked up to a tow truck, its removal imminent.

How would you handle the situation? Do you know your rights?

This story unfolded in front of me in a Brisbane commercial area recently.

The middle child and I had just finished our post-yoga coffees at a boutique coffee roastery and needed to get home, but we couldn’t get out of the carpark.

A tow truck, parked at an angle across the only exit, had its tray down and straps hooked on to a small red car in preparation for loading.

The towie, a young guy with a buzz cut and beer gut, wore fluro yellow. He looked to be more of a beer and burgers bloke than a regular at the roastery. Baggy shorts finished just above his knees, revealing calves the size of Christmas hams. One hulking forearm doubled as a tattoo canvas.

He sprayed something on the ground at the base of the car’s tyres, possibly a lubricant to aid its undignified, rear-end-first removal, but stopped when a young woman ran from the cafe, smiling and waving her arms. From my vantage point (behind sunglasses and feigned disinterest), she looked to be reassuring the towie he could stop moving her car because she was here now and could just drive it away.

The towie folded his arms, listened, then unfolded his arms and walked away to finish the job, clearly unmoved by her story. Two other young women then emerged from the cafe – her friends? colleagues? – and the three of them teamed up to rescue the car.

The owner, in ripped jeans and impeccable white shirt, planted herself behind her chariot, a courageous waif putting her body between the car and the tow truck. The towie just sprayed the lubricant around her, careful not to get any on her tan sandals.

Her two comrades looked on, at first standing still with hands on hips, then moving about, waiving their arms and tossing their hair. There might have been gnashing of teeth. I can’t be sure.

The women extracted mobile phones, taking photos and making calls. They were no girlie push-overs. As you might expect from a generation raised on Beyoncé, Pink and Taylor Swift, they were all sass, sneer and stylish self-assurance.

They were not intimidated by the beefy bloke wearing ink and high-viz. And they outnumbered him. They certainly could have outrun him, even in stilettos. But could they get the car back?

I couldn’t hear what was being said (what with my locked doors, sunglasses and bowed head) but shouts of “just doing my job” and “it’s the law” wafted my way.

 

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Ms Ripped Jeans had parked her car in a private car park, shared by the tenants (or owners?) of a commercial building. A prominent sign said the space belonged to a particular tenant (not the coffee roaster) and unauthorised vehicles would be towed.

It was early and the car park had lots of empty spaces. The business it belonged to didn’t appear to be open and this minor transgression didn’t seem to warrant a tow.

But this is happening a lot in Brisbane, with many stories posted online by people whose cars have been towed from private property and who are charged hundreds of dollars to retrieve them.  It appears particularly common in inner city areas where public street parking is scarce and empty commercial spaces tempt drivers looking for a short-term stopover.

A November 2015 post by a woman identified as Issy says:

“I had my car towed last night at West End in Brisbane as I was parked (very briefly) in front of an office block after business hours around 8.30/9pm with very poorly lit signage. I phoned the tow truck company and they told me that they had only just closed for the night – I explained that I had a boot full of groceries and really needed my car to get to my exam in the morning, but he replied ‘not my problem love’ and hung up.”

Another unhappy camper, Locco, posted this on 20 February 2016:

“I got towed last night at Newstead. Office building obviously long closed for the weekend. The car park was empty (I now know why).”

The cost to drivers to recover their cars, either from a truck driver with hooks attached or from the company impound lot after it’s been removed, runs to many hundreds of dollars.

Aside from the financial impact, personal safety is an issue for some. WronglyTowed posted on 14 April 2016:

“My daughter’s car was towed tonight from Fortitude Valley. She was left with no idea where her car was … She was a 19-year-old girl left out on the street at 11pm at night.”

Meanwhile back at the roastery, my yoga- and coffee-induced zen gradually dissipated as the tubby towie and truculent trio continued to debate the issues. I started to wonder how one knew the other had breached the signed property conditions.

The standoff

The standoff

Did the owner of the affected business call the towing company? At eight in the morning that building appeared to be empty. Or do these tow trucks just hang about, looking for people infringing parking rules?

Another reluctant towing customer, bob289, says this is the case.

“The tow truck also sits on a side street during busy times actually waiting for somebody to park there (I caught them in the act) and immediately goes and tows the car. My car was there for just 8 minutes before it was towed.”

And this story from maxv posted on 24 April suggests some shady practices might be in play:

“Same thing just happened to me, almost empty car park off Winn Lane in the valley. Two other “dummy” cars parked there to make it look OK. Was gone 15 minutes to get a burger, came back and it was towed. $660 supposedly, haven’t been there. Too angry at this stage. Another car was parked there when I left, poor bastards.”

The tow truck industry has a bad reputation. In 2014 the Queensland Government changed the regulations around tow truck licences in part to “provide incentive for members of criminal organisations to disassociate from them (and) reduce opportunities for criminal organisations to launder ill-gotten gains”.

But this doesn’t mean operators are acting unlawfully when they tow cars from private property. Towing companies might be unsympathetic and their towing fees exorbitant, but they appear to be acting within the boundaries of existing laws.

Advice from Hynes Legal’s Frank Higginson says body corporates can have visitors towed “depending on what signage has been displayed”.

“This situation is no different to you parking on my driveway without my consent.  In effect it is a form of trespass” – Frank Higginson

The Queensland Government is reviewing property laws  including body corporate lot owners’  rights to have cars towed.

But unless the current laws are changed, drivers should read parking signs on private property very carefully.

And don’t be tempted by those tantalizingly empty car spaces at the front of commercial premises, especially when visiting inner-city areas outside regular business hours. The building lights might be off but a tow truck could be just around the corner.

As for the drama blocking my departure last week, it concluded finally with the crestfallen car owner handing over her credit card to have her car unhooked.

It cost her $550. It cost me 40 minutes of my life.

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Angela Bensted is Brisbane-based freelance writer who likes to listen first and struggle with syntax later. She pitches stories to magazines, sometimes successfully, and helps businesses produce compelling copy for print and online.

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