Doug Merrill stands with one of three tow trucks he operates at All Directions Transport in Hope. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
Doug Merrill stands with one of three tow trucks he operates at All Directions Transport in Hope. (Photos by Brian P. D. Hannon)
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Vehicles collide on a well-used stretch of highway; a single car goes off a back road in the middle of the night. Auto accidents happen every day, caused by weather or sudden mistakes, and scenes of inconvenience or tragic devastation are quickly encircled by police cruisers, fire engines, ambulances and, waiting nearby, a tow truck or two.

Like other first responders, tow operators are subjected to many of the shocking sights faced by law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, which is simply part of a job many of them continue to do despite the possibilities of mental and physical strain, but also risks to their financial health.

While emergency personnel who try to save lives and maintain order are certain to be paid, tow truck operators can go without compensation for their efforts clearing wrecked vehicles from accident scenes.

Doug Merrill is one of hundreds of operators in Maine who has dealt with all of these hazards over a decade in the towing industry. The first rule he holds in his mind when recovering car wrecks is to keep his eyes on the work.

“I’ve recovered cars deep out of the woods with bodies in them,” said Merrill, whose experience has taught him to focus on attaching cables and straps to the exterior of crashed autos rather than checking inside. “I don’t want to look in the window. You keep your eyes down.”

Merrill, who owns All Directions Transport in Hope, recalls seeing 13 or 14 bodies of accident victims in the past decade, including three in one week. For a time, he did not want to ride his motorcycle because of the disturbing scenes he encountered.

Merrill believes the most significant aspect of his recovery work is to clear accident scenes as quickly as possible, without further damaging vehicles, so that emergency workers, especially police, are available for the next incident they will face. “I’m trying to get them done and get them moving along,” he said.

Yet he notes that tow operators suffer some of the same stress brought on by witnessing tragedy without the formal mental or emotional support systems of the type normally available to law enforcement, firefighters and EMTs.

“It does affect you,” said Merrill, who employs two other drivers at his business on Route 17. “We’ve had some horrific accidents. It’s amazing how many there are.”

There are also the physical demands of a job that involves hooking heavy machinery to hulking cement trucks, overturned rigs and cumbersome autos of every shape. Yet accident recovery often occurs in fields or wooded areas that are wet, overgrown with grass or covered in brush, exposing operators to poison ivy or the swarms of ticks that have overrun Maine and spread Lyme disease and related illnesses.

Then there is the financial gamble involving insurance companies and their customers whose vehicles have been removed from an accident scene.

Tow truck operators are summoned to accidents by local law enforcement, who call the closest company to ensure a quick response, with occasional exceptions if drivers make a reasonable request for a specific firm.

Merrill explained that full comprehensive insurance covers both the drivers who cause accidents and the victims. Basic liability insurance, however, only covers payouts to victims by insurers when their customers are at fault.

“Liability pays for, basically, the people you hit,” Merrill said, adding that tow operators are not guaranteed to be a factor in the equation.

Insurance will pay for towing, but only if the vehicle has comprehensive coverage. Drivers who carry liability packages are left to pay for towing, leading owners to abandon cars that are too old or damaged to make retrieval and repairs worthwhile.

“People just walk away,” said Joel Gay, owner of Oyster River Towing in Warren. He believes drivers who cause accidents and then abandon their vehicles at tow shops should be required by the state to fulfill their financial obligations.

“Before they register another vehicle they should at least pay for the [wrecked] vehicle,” said Gay, who estimates he has not been paid for towing about 30 vehicles over the past four years.



 




Merrill said he has various other types of towing jobs, but approximately a quarter of the bills for autos he recovers from accident scenes go unpaid.

Judith Watters, consumer outreach specialist for the Maine Bureau of Insurance, said her agency did not know of any penalties against drivers involved in accidents who do not pay recovery fees or otherwise neglect to become involved with towing companies.

“If towing were required to be part of liability coverage, the cost of this additional coverage would be passed on to consumers by insurers in the form of higher premiums,” said Watters, who noted the bureau has not heard any recent inquiries from state officials or legislators about making towing costs part of liability insurance.

Yet in 2011 the issue was the basis of LD 960, a bill in the Maine Legislature to require insurance companies to include towing in their packages, even for customers who do not wish to carry more than minimum liability coverage.

Merrill was one of those who testified before the Joint Standing Committee on Insurance and Financial Services, characterizing the towing loophole as “a serious issue in the financial survival of tow operators.” Only two of the committee’s 11 members supported the measure, preventing its progression to the full Legislature.

Lynne McChristian is a professor of insurance and risk management at Florida State University and a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, an independent analysis and research group based in New York. She explained towing is part of the “optional coverage” offered by most insurers. While many people purchase American Automobile Association (AAA) insurance, most opt to pay extra for towing coverage from their own insurance companies, which usually costs between $6 and $12 for a six-month period, depending on a policy holder’s location and driving record, she said.

Although it is a fairly standard benefit, towing coverage is not mandated. “I don’t know that that’s an insurance company’s responsibility,” McChristian said.

Watters of the insurance bureau confirmed that is the case in Maine. “There is not a requirement to carry insurance for towing costs. This is generally sold as an optional coverage,” she said. “We are not aware of a penalty against insurance companies for not paying for towing, unless the insured had towing coverage. In general, the insurance company has a contractual relationship with the policyholder … not with the towing company.”

Tow operators can lose money even if vehicles are not abandoned, according to Merrill and Gay, who said hazardous material costs are borne by the operators, as well.

Gay explained the state mandates disposal of waste such as gasoline and oil within 30 days of towing a wreck. To a small business that has invested $75,000 in outfitting and operating even a small truck, in addition to the cost of equipment and supplies used to retrieve wrecks from accident scenes, those requirements can be difficult to bear.

Merrill concurred, pointing out there is also the potential damage to the environment of transmission and power steering fluid seeping into the soil.

“Nobody comes by to offer to pay. Nobody comes by from an insurance company. And we end up storing them,” said Merrill, who displayed four crumpled car shells among overgrown weeds behind his garage. Current prices for scrap metal at junkyards do not balance the costs of abandoned autos, he said.

McChristian said some owners may decide what is left of a vehicle following an accident is not worth salvage and repair costs, even if they were covered by an insurance company. “When a car is totaled they only give you the depreciated value back,” she said.

Merrill said he and other operators are not asking insurance companies and drivers to pay storage costs. Nor are they seeking extra money for the paperwork fees paid to the state, or hazmat disposal costs. He also is not expecting extra payment to cover the registration and insurance for the three vehicles he operates, including a 33,000-pound truck that cost between $275,000 and $300,00 to purchase and outfit. The parts and maintenance and employee wages he pays are all part of the operating budget he maintains by charging between $150 and $400 for accident services, more for larger vehicles.

When they are called upon by authorities to clear away wrecked autos, he and other tow operators believe taking damaged or destroyed cars off the highways and backroads is an important aspect of public safety, clearing hazards for drivers while allowing emergency personnel to do their work.

For those jobs they do as part of a first-responder system, Merrill said they only hope to receive the money necessary to prevent their business from suffering financially while performing a public service.

They want, he says, “the bare minimum.”