An Ottawa committee took a big step towards regulating the city’s towing industry on Thursday in hopes that a proposal to set flat rates and license operators in the nation’s capital will provide some predictability to those in need of a tow.
Ottawa’s Community and Protective Services Committee (CPSC) unanimously passed a staff proposal at Thursday morning’s meeting to create a new bylaw governing tow truck drivers, operators and storage facilities in the city.
If approved by city council, each of the above-mentioned parties would need to get a licence, which would require operators to have a good driving record, pass a police check and show proof of insurance to run a tow business.
The bylaw would set flat rates for tow services starting at $300 for a car involved in a collision, for example.
City staff said the set rates, which are used in some other Ontario municipalities, are inclusive of additional fees that are sometimes tacked on top of a customer’s bill after a tow.
These “high and inconsistent rates” have been the source of some exorbitant costs that have run rampant as of late in Ottawa, CPSC chair Matt Luloff said Thursday, adding there is a need for “clear accountability” for operators.
Another aspect of the bylaw would set a 72-hour limit on how long storage facilities can keep a car in their lot before notifying the owner, another pain point that councillors and staff alike said Thursday had been exploited in recent years by local businesses that held cars and ran up the daily costs for holding a vehicle without ever speaking to owners.
Ali Awada of Express Towing, the sole delegate to speak on the motion Thursday, hailed the proposed bylaw as long overdue for the local industry.
“We’ve been talking about this for years, thank God you guys are actually putting something in place,” he said.
“There are good apples in any business, there’s also bad apples. This will actually be able to regulate certain things, regulate pricing, regulate who’s in the business and who’s not in the business.”
Despite the bylaw providing clarity to the industry, Awada said there are still “grey areas” in the city’s towing scheme that are making the business difficult for small providers.
He cited the use of private parking enforcement agencies (PPEA) — companies that are deputized to issue parking tickets, and, if necessary, call for the removal of improperly parked cars from private property — as a concern for his business.
Landlords will often contract a small tow operator to remove illegally parked cars from their lot, Awada said. But the use of PPEAs, which default to the city’s contracted tow operator to remove a car, raises disputes about which company should get the tow.
Roger Chapman, Ottawa’s head of bylaw, said in a media availability after the committee meeting that there’s nothing in the proposed bylaw that would preclude a landlord from calling their preferred tow company to remove a car from their property.
He also said Ottawa’s two-year PPEA pilot program allowing these agencies to tow vehicles themselves has not seen much uptake, with fewer than 50 PPEAs taking on tows over the course of the pilot.
The bylaw also does not address concerns over alleged criminal elements in Ottawa’s towing industry.
A Global News investigation in 2020 found that some members of the Ottawa Police Service were allegedly securing hookups for their preferred tow truck drivers at the scenes of collisions in exchange for a cut of the tow bill or other under-the-table benefits.
A whistleblower in Ottawa’s tow industry told Global News about the alleged corruption after the RCMP laid charges against three OPS officers in April 2020.
Drivers have described the current situation, whereby police play referee between numerous truck drivers racing to the scene of a collision to be the first to get the hookup, as rife for abuse of power.
Yet Ottawa’s new regulations would still allow a tow truck to hook a car at a collision if directed by an OPS officer or other authority on the scene, despite assertions that the city’s bylaw is intended to provide peace of mind to car owners after they’ve been shaken up in a crash.
Responding to Global News questions about a possible gap in regulation, Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s head of emergency and protective services, said during Thursday’s media availability that addressing such concerns is not within municipal jurisdiction.
“That wasn’t part of our process,” he said.
Tow truck drivers who spoke to Global News in 2020 also called for stricter regulations as one tact to stamp out price gouging in the industry.
OPS Staff Sgt. Peter Jupp, who attended Thursday’s committee to field councillor questions on police’s role in the bylaw, was enthusiastic about the proposal.
“This is a great initiative that we fully support,” he said.
Ottawa city staff said they developed the bylaw to be “harmonious” with impending Ontario-wide towing regulations, though there’s no word yet on when the province might implement such legislation.
Di Monte said that if the 2.5 full-time equivalent positions created as part of the regulation would be made redundant when Ontario’s pending legislation comes into effect, those staff would likely be folded into other bylaw department work.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper also set in motion plans to regulate “staging areas” for tow truck drivers. He cited concerns from residents in his ward about tow drivers parking in residential neighbourhoods near on-ramps to Highway 417 in preparation to respond to accidents, causing safety concerns and disturbances in the area.
Leiper’s proposals, filed by Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney on his behalf, will be considered by staff with hopes of new rules being added to the bylaw in the first half of 2023.
If city council approves the bylaw at its next meeting, the new regulations will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022.