A favorite Houston tow-truck urban myth returns

The Chronicle's Matt Stiles reports on a new collection of SAFEclear data compiled at the request of a federal judge. Houston bicyclist Bob Stein even makes an appearance:

While the city has released information about crash reductions since the program went into effect in January 2005, the report offers some new details about what Mayor Bill White has touted as a key to increasing safety and reducing congestion on Houston's freeways.

Compiled by Bob Stein of Rice University, whose wife works in the mayor's office, and Tim Lomax of the Texas Transportation Institute, the report groups tows into nine categories.

Only 8,670 of the tows about 15 percent followed wrecks. Other reasons were more obscure. For example, about 250 stolen, flooded or burned vehicles were removed, less than 1 percent of the total.

The arrest of drivers accounted for 1,517 tows, or nearly 3 percent.

The study also said Safe Clear, which uses selected tow companies, accounts for about 5 percent of all the towing business in Houston.

The judge's request for the data comes because of a lawsuit by tow companies that are not part of the SAFEclear program.

An old red herring makes its way into the story:

The city wanted the program to keep hordes of tow trucks from racing to accident scenes and creating traffic problems themselves.

The city initially wanted to select the tow companies that would be involved in order to charge them big bucks for the exclusive rights to a portion of the freeway. That was how Mayor White planned to pay for the program initially, before another federal judge struck down that arrangement.

The city is awfully fond of the "hordes of tow trucks converging on the scene" argument, however, having used it in order to justify an earlier scheme to charge fees for rights to tow from accident scenes. Congressional action rendered Houston's longtime monopolistic scheme moot in the 1990s, and as the Chronicle's T.J. Milling reported in 1997, the deregulatory action did NOT result in "legions" or "hordes" of tow trucks creating problems at accident scenes:

WHEN CONGRESS accidentally deregulated the wrecker industry two years ago, local prophets of doom predicted a free-for-all with legions of drivers converging on accident scenes, duking it out for the fee.

It didn't quite happen that way.

There was an initial spike in the number of trucks, but the market has leveled off. There are more than twice as many trucks now licensed to tow from accident scenes in Houston, but police have no problems with the new system, and the doomsayers have fallen conspicuously silent.

"Everyone was screaming that there would be thousands of wreckers at each accident scene, but the terrible things they said would happen just didn't take place," said Jonathan E. Bruce, attorney for deregulation supporters.

The overall number of wreckers, which includes those licensed for non-accident tows, has actually declined by more than 100, in part because of stricter city inspection requirements.

Then and now, the city wanted to use exclusive tow contracts with selected vendors, and simply tossed out the "hordes of tow trucks converging on the scene" red herring in support of its preferred policy. That contention has always been overblown, as the earlier Chronicle story points out, but it nonetheless continues to find its way into news stories and even casual conversation as conventional wisdom.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 08/14/06 11:25 PM | Print |

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