What started as a scary situation with a car at the side of the road has become even more frightening for the driver involved.
Jason, who asked that his last name not be used for this story, had a flat tire on the shoulder of Highway 401 in November when a tow truck driver came and suggested he move his car quickly.
“In the beginning, the guy was all charming and everything,” Jason recalled. “Then, towards the end, he was kind of like hustling. I think that’s the best way to describe it.”
What started as a friendly tow from danger turned into months of fighting to get his vehicle back from a collision centre in Scarborough. Although the lengthy battle ended up leading to his car being returned, Jason says he’s is now fearful of any repercussions should he point fingers at those responsible.
“It took a crazy amount of money to get my car out of there,” he said. “It was like extortion.”
It’s a scenario that has played itself out over and over again on the GTA’s roads and highways. Drivers in distress being taken advantage of by some tow truck operators looking for their next victim. Often there will be multiple trucks at the scene of a collision, each trying to score the job in what has become an ongoing turf war.
Multiple incidents involving towing company employees being shot, trucks being set on fire and police crackdowns involving possible gangs and theft have now become common in the region.
Last June, Toronto police revealed the outcome of Project Kracken, an organized crime investigation that led to 73 people facing 599 charges with guns and drugs seized.
“In two robberies in particular, tow trucks smashed their way through jewelry stores and firearms were discharged,” Deputy Chief James Ramer explained.
Durham regional police has since followed suit with 250 charges laid and 31 vehicles recovered as part of an investigation into local towing companies called Project Bondar. Both Peel and York regional police have ongoing probes as well.
Mark Graves, president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, believes all the criminal activity has culminated in new rules finally being established.
“All the violence that has escalated and when it all comes together there is a tipping point,” he said. “It’s bringing everyone to the table and interests are piqued to making something happen.”
Right now, just 17 of 444 municipalities in Ontario have bylaws in place to help regulate the industry. The City of Toronto requires a criminal record and judicial matters check before a license is issued but local rules differ and are often broken, especially when the lines between cities are blurred.
Thornhill MPP Gila Martow has been pushing for new provincial regulations since she was in opposition at Queen’s Park. She has introduced private member’s bills in the past and is confident there is now some momentum toward getting legislation passed.
Martow said a meeting of stakeholders, including police, members of the tow truck industry, and CAA took place in November last year. She claims “continuing discussions with ministries involved” are taking place and research is being done to draft recommendations.
Meanwhile, those behind the wheel do have recourse under the Consumer Protection Act should they find themselves in a precarious position.
“Towing is not one of those things that people typically don’t think about,” Raymond Chan, spokesperson for CAA South Central Ontario, said.
“Unless you find yourself in that vulnerable situation stuck at the side of the road or if you know somebody who has gone through that particular circumstance, towing just isn’t top of mind for most people.”
As a result, CAA put together it’s Towing Bill of Rights in the fall of 2018. It reminds drivers that they have the right to decide who can tow their vehicle and that a form should be signed in advance, among other things.
Jason now looks back at his experience and wishes he had been more aware in the moment.
“I was like ‘He can’t be a bad guy. It can’t happen to me, right?'”
It turned out to be a lesson learned. One that still has Jason fearing those involved and the towing industry as a whole.