It's impossible not to stress out when you've had a bingle: you're in shock, there's traffic banking up behind you and all you can think about is getting your car off the road and getting out of there. Then suddenly a tow truck driver arrives to move your car and you're so relieved you could just about kiss them.
But do you just go with the first tow truck to arrive on the scene and trust that they'll take care of you? We'll talk you through what to do, what to watch out for, and what the rules are around tow trucks in your region.
- Contact your insurer Before you do – or sign – anything, call your insurance provider. They may be able to organise a tow for you and tell you what to expect.
- Check your cover Towing cover varies from insurer to insurer and you may not be covered for towing. It's a good idea to review your product disclosure statement to check your policy's limits.
- Don't sign on the dotted line Never sign a blank or incomplete towing authority form. Make sure it includes the full address of where the car is being towed to and the towing fee.
- Read the fine print Always read the terms and conditions on a towing authority form. If it looks suspicious, don't sign it – you could be signing up for more than you bargained for.
- It's your choice You get to decide where your car is towed to.
- Take your time If you need time to consider your options, get the car towed to your home. That way you won't be charged storage fees and you can make a decision when your head's clearer – although you may end up having to pay for two tows.
"While it is safe to use most tow truck providers, if you have a crash and your vehicle is not drivable we recommend you call your insurer as soon as possible and let them organise the tow," an RACQ spokesperson says. "Insurers may have limits on how much they will pay for towing after a crash and you don't want to be caught out of pocket."
Remember too that it's illegal for anyone to harass or coerce you into buying goods or services, so don't let anyone pressure you into accepting a tow if you're not comfortable with it.
With accident towing paperwork, any dodgy deviations from standard practice will be buried in the fine print, so make sure you take the time to read it thoroughly. (Hard to do when you're still shaking from the car crash, we know, but five minutes' reading time could save you months of pain in the long run.)
Many states have regulated forms issued by the state government, so if it looks more like a brochure or a contract than a standard form, be suspicious.
"Don't sign any documents at the scene of an accident except the regulated towing authorisation forms. The form should only collect appropriate information about the car and contact details, and you should get a copy," says Campbell Fuller, the Insurance Council of Australia's general manager of communications and media relations.
Some towing companies take advantage of your state of mind after an accident and get you to sign dodgy documentation while you're frazzled and unlikely to check the fine print. This is known in the industry as 'carnapping'.
Along with giving towing companies permission to tow your vehicle, some of these contracts also contain particularly unpleasant terms, like locking you into using a particular repairer who'll charge you (or your insurer) inflated fees for repairs or storage.
"If you get locked into charges over and above what your insurer covers under your policy, you may be left to foot the bill, so always contact your insurer before signing anything," an RACQ spokesperson says.
One particularly nasty scam that takes carnapping to the next level involves unwitting drivers signing documents that give dodgy lawyers permission to act on their behalf.
In 2017, Victorian lawyer Nicholas Logan was found guilty of misconduct for his involvement in a scam in which not-at-fault drivers were talked into signing documents that gave him permission to sue the at-fault driver for inflated repair fees.
Often the victims were unaware of the hustle until they were summoned to court. One case saw Logan attempt to charge a victim's insurer more than $10,000 for $4300 worth of repair work.
Logan pleaded guilty to seven charges of misconduct and was banned from legal practice for two years.
"Signed my life away"
A bad day got even worse for CHOICE member Kieren when he had an accident in 2015. "Immediately after a head-on collision, I signed my life away to a dirty towing company that charged exorbitant storage fees," he says.
Kieren says the tow truck driver put the wrong date on the towing authority document, which effectively meant he only had 48 hours' free storage, instead of the 72 hours he's entitled to in Queensland. Kieren was then charged storage fees of $66/day. (Storage fees for accident towing aren't regulated in Queensland, but storage fees for cars removed from private car parks are just $25/day.)
When he went to have his vehicle towed from the company's holding yard, he was told he could only use the towing company's staff to move it – so the wrecker he'd engaged to take the vehicle away wasn't allowed to access his vehicle. This meant he had to pay even more money to the company to have his vehicle towed to the wrecker.
A Transport and Main Roads spokesperson says that there's never been a regulatory requirement for the same tow truck operator to be used for a subsequent tow from a holding yard – but there also aren't any rules against it.
While the company didn't technically break the law, it still found sneaky ways to extract the maximum amount of money from an unsuspecting person, even within the constraints of a regulated industry. This is why it pays to double (and triple) check everything before you sign it.
The accident towing industry is regulated on a state level, so the rules vary across Australia. In some regions fees are capped and rules are enforced, but in others there's little regulation and dodgy companies continue to rip consumers off.
We've taken a look at the rules and regulations (or lack thereof) across Australia.
The towing industry has a shady history: think standover tactics, links to organised crime and shonky backroom deals.
Most states have tightened things up, but Western Australia really is the wild west of accident towing, with no regulation of fees and allegations of overcharging.
'Spotter's fees' are illegal in most other Australian states, but in WA companies blatantly advertise payouts of up to $200 if you let them know about a crash.
Even where things are more regulated, the towing industry still isn't exactly squeaky clean. A NSW police officer was sacked in 2017 for giving a towing company accident tip-offs in exchange for cash, and a 2014 review of the NSW smash repair industry found that tow truck drivers do dirty deals with smash repairers to 'capture' jobs from not-at-fault drivers.
We spoke with a Sydney business owner who was offered a 'spotter's fee' by a towing company in 2017. His business was near a busy intersection that had its fair share of car accidents.
"One day a tow truck driver showed up and said, 'If you see a crash, give me a call and I'll give you fifty bucks,'" Mike (not his real name) says.
Mike says he called the driver around seven times but, despite the towing company picking up business each time, he claims he was only paid a total of $50. The final straw was an accident between two cars that he called in and didn't receive payment for, despite seeing the towing company load both cars. "I haven't called them again since," Mike says.
Inducements like spotter's fees are illegal in NSW under the Tow Truck Industry Act 1998.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.