Towing for safety has its costs
Ashley Bitar's day started off the way you never want one to: Upon reaching her car, she discovered it had been broken into. The thief had punched out the rear, driver's side window of her 2009 Mazda, parked outside Bitar's South Boston apartment, and stolen an empty briefcase. Bitar, a pharmaceutical saleswoman, could not get out of making her morning's sales calls, so she taped up the window as best she could and hit the road.
About three hours later she emerged from a client's office on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston to find, this time, that her car was gone.
"I thought, 'Oh, what else?' " Bitar recalled.
On a guess, she called police to see if her car had been towed. To her temporary relief, it had been.
Police canvassing the block had noticed her missing window, she was told, and as a precaution against further vandalism or theft ordered the vehicle towed. They called it a "safekeep towing."
"I'd never heard of safekeeping," Bitar said. "My first instinct was, 'That's really nice of you guys.' Then they told me they would charge me to get the car back. Not so nice anymore."
The towing bill, including a one-day storage fee, was $132.
Officer Jamie Kenneally, a Boston Police Department spokesman, offered sympathy for people in Bitar's situation. But officers who request tows for safekeeping do so to protect car owners, not to harm them further, he said.
"It's done for the right reason and with the best interest of the motor vehicle owner at heart," Kenneally said. "No one likes to get their car towed. I've had my car towed, and it is the worst experience in the world . . . but it's not like this is indiscriminate towing. It's at the discretion of the officer, who feels it might be best to tow this car."
Police do not set towing fees, nor do they have the ability to waive such fees, Kenneally said.
Often, he said, an officer will attempt to call the car owner before ordering a vehicle towed, instructing the person to get the damage fixed right away.
"If there's time available to call, they will," Kenneally said. ". . . We understand full well it's an inconvenience, and we do apologize for the inconvenience," he said.
Part of the problem is that the Police Department's safekeeping towing regulation lumps together vandalism victims with drivers who break the law. Many safekeeping tows are ordered when a driver is arrested for drunken driving and cannot drive his car home. (Police can turn the car over to a car passenger, leave it parked in a legal space, or have it towed, the rules say.)
Cambridge police - and various departments across the state, I'm sure - also tow vehicles they feel could be vandalized again.
"We do the same thing," said Lieutenant Jack Albert, head of Cambridge's Traffic Enforcement Unit. "Say we make an arrest, and the car ends up parked in a private parking lot. We won't leave the vehicle there, because it puts the owner of the property at liability should the car be broken into.
"Say we have a car where someone stole their tires," he continued. "We'll tow that on a city ordinance where you can't have a car in disrepair on the road."
Albert said that car owners can seek reimbursement for towing fees through their insurance companies when they file their vandalism claim.
Whether your community performs safekeep towing, police might cite you for driving defective equipment if your car is vandalized and you fail to get it repaired immediately. Bitar's car technically didn't need a rear, side window - no car does - but she could not legally drive with a broken windshield or a broken brake light.
Could she have done anything differently?
"If you can't fix it, call the police and make them aware that you know it was vandalized," Albert said. "Tell them, 'I'm going back to move the car later today, and please don't tow it.' "