From Past to Present: 25 Years of Towing Industry Progression

Tow Canada magazine has been chronicling the industry’s issues and challenges 25 years. Has anything changed?

by Kara Cunningham

Digging through Tow Canada’s archives is fun—so many familiar faces and names, old friends and new, trucks and scenes, triumphs and tragedy, politics and pundits, and more and more politics. A good trades magazine provides information of interest to the people in the industry it serves, providing a wealth of insight over time. Most of us are familiar with the words of George Santayana, “To know your future you must know your past.” The history of anything, including a trade, is a window into the future.

“We’ve gone to the government in the past to seek their help, but every time they intervene, everyone starts yelling about the right to make a living… some towers have gotten away with a lot.

West Coast Tow Show, Burnaby, B.C. (2019)

There are people in the industry far more qualified than the writer here to comment on the industry’s past and future (and hopefully we can convince some of them to comment or write for Tow Canada). What we can do, and what we have done here, is peruse the first editions of the magazine (1998) and summarize the issues that made headlines, and where possible, point out parallels to current issues. This effort is not exhaustive. It would take a book to do justice to every issue, person, and trend that deserves it, but whether you are new to Tow Canada, or have had a subscription since the beginning, you may find this retrospective interesting. Part I will focus on industry regulation, training and standards. Here is what we found.

Looking back 25 years

Industry regulation, training, and standards were as big an issue 25 years ago as they are now. In 1998, a regular section called Provincial Dispatches appeared in the magazine, and the activities of provincial towing and recovery associations and other industry-related organizations across Canada were reported therein. You will find a number of the themes familiar, then, now, and across the country.

Moving from west to east, in 1998 the towing division of the Automotive Retailers Association of British Columbia (ARA) was preoccupied with lobbying labour standards officials to reconsider an exemption to overtime laws that had been lifted by the government. For towing companies, that meant paying overtime to commission-based drivers after a 40-hour work week, the concern being the drivers’ ability to earn an adequate living.

In other B.C. news, the ARA reported that the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) had made a proposal that would require towing companies to hire two flag people for single lane traffic control on provincial highways, offering $50 an hour for flagging. This proposal was turned down by the ARA’s towing division.

In Alberta, the Professional Tow Operators of Alberta (PTOA) association was in the process of reorganization, but former founding president Duane Bassani had opinions on the objectives of a renewed association, stating that the real debate facing towers in Alberta was regulating how towers do their job: “There are people running around that do not have certified equipment and that’s simply not safe. We’ve gone to the government in the past to seek their help, but every time they intervene, everyone starts yelling about the right to make a living… some towers have gotten away with a lot.”

“There’s one side that says, ‘leave it alone, we’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, and there’s the other side that says, ‘We’ve had enough of those aggressive drivers pursuing accidents.’

In Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Towing Association (STA) was trying to address similar issues and was counting on tougher vehicle inspections to “rid the province of shoddy operators.” David Washburn, associate president of the STA, stated member concerns: “…anyone can make money running a recovery vehicle no matter what shape it is in.” He said there was nothing to stop a person from going to the government and buying a “C” plate, and that no meaningful vehicle inspection was involved.

On the plus side, the provincial government had approached the STA for input on mandatory safety inspections for commercial vehicles, which was good because the association had been lobbying for inspections that involved more than a simple “chassis check.” The association was also trying to prevent towing vehicles form being “lumped in” with transport trucks, hoping that the government would lower the GVW on inspections. 

“So what do you say to a motorist whose vehicle has been damaged by an inexperienced, ill-equipped tow firm?”

In Manitoba, although there was no formal association at the time, 30-40 owners and drivers were meeting regularly to discuss industry issues. Otto Bencze, owner of LaBroquerie Towing, used even stronger language that Washburn to describe what was necessary to improve business conditions for towers in the province: “We want to change some legislations for those of us who want to make an honest living.”

Echoing the concerns of both the PTOA and the STA, Bencze takes issue with what he calls “scab towers” who run vehicles without adequate safety equipment and insurance. He also emphasizes the key role a provincial towing association could play in driver training and contract negotiation with Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI).

In Ontario, the provincial report was dominated by the news of industry surveys conducted by both the Peel Vehicle Repair Association (PVRA) and the Peel Regional Police as a result of numerous complaints filed against towers, and as a consequence of a tragic accident where a 19-year-old girl died after a tow truck plowed into a minivan at an intersection (resulting in a criminal negligence charge). The police survey targeted various stakeholder groups and 600 residents of Mississauga and Brampton who had been involved in motor collisions. The survey asked 27 questions, but pointed to mounting concerns over safety, proper equipment, police contracts, the ethics of tow truck drivers receiving a commission or finder’s fee for providing auto repair shops with business, and the prevalence of accident chasing.

In an attempt to address these issues, the PVRA forwarded a proposed list of guidelines to all its members, the local police forces, and the region’s politicians to consider. Edward Spence, the head administrator for towing contracts for the police in the Brampton-Mississauga area, said that the PVRA’s recommendations were sound, but the region’s towers were not united: “What I see happening here are two divisions within the towing industry. There’s one side that says, ‘leave it alone, we’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, and there’s the other side that says, ‘We’ve had enough of those aggressive drivers pursuing accidents.’”

Moving on to the Maritimes, the New Brunswick Towing and Recovery Group (NBRG) was preoccupied with developing a provincially recognized certification program for towers. Wayne Walsh, vice president of the NBRG, reported: “They (The DOT) understand that we are professional, and they also see how valuable certification would be to our industry.” This certification program was expected to be the first of its kind in Canada, a three-day course available to drivers in the summer of 1999.

The NBRG was also preoccupied with the problem of abandoned vehicles: “We’re stuck with unclaimed cars, and it is a major problem nation-wide,” said Walsh. In an effort to convince the provincial government that new legislation was needed to address the problem and clarify the law, the association had conducted a province-wide survey of all towing businesses. The section [of the Motor Vehicle Act] on abandoned vehicles is open to interpretation,” said Walsh.

As for the Nova Scotia Towing Society (NSTW), their membership reported issues with RCMP favouritism, the law, and abandoned vehicles. NSTW president Don Maclean stated, “The RCMP detachments are using their favourite towing companies over and over again regardless of the needs of other towers in the province.” The association was in the process of lobbying the provincial government to rectify the situation, but so far without results. “Everything we have done seems to hit a brick wall. We’ve offered proposed regulation, standards for the industry, but nothing happens.”

Illustration: John Crossen

“How do you appease towers who invest heavily in training and equipment, knowing that someone who hasn’t done this can get equal access to police business.”

Heather Llewellyn, vice president of the NSTW, was not short on solutions to many of the industry’s challenges. Like so many associations, the issue was gaining the attention and cooperation of government agencies and other relevant authorities. In Llewellyn’s first of many articles for Tow Canada, entitled Police Rotation Runaround, Llewellyn tackles both local and national issues. 

Locally, in Nova Scotia, the police rotation system was a cause of concern. As Llewellyn stated, police referral can be a valuable source of business, but “there are inherent problems with rotation lists and low-bid contracts.” She argues that many of these problems could be solved by imposing minimum standards for towers.

“In the end it is often the motorist who suffers most from a rotation list,” Llewellyn stated. “So what do you say to a motorist whose vehicle has been damaged by an inexperienced, ill-equipped tow firm? And how do you appease towers who invest heavily in training and equipment, knowing that someone who hasn’t done this can get equal access to police business?”

To support her point, Llewellyn described a municipal meeting she attended where five towing firms met with police and fire officials to establish a rotation system. Apparently only one company was properly equipped to handle a recovery, prompting the following response from the fire department: “I can’t believe these guys. They come to a scene and drag it over the shoulder and on to the flatbed then dump it on its roof again in the compound.”

At a minimum, Llewellyn recommended that police departments set minimum standards for equipment used by towers. She also mentioned training: “Too often experienced professional towers take the brunt of criticism when people entering the towing business don’t know how to do their work properly. Ignorant of proper towing and recovery techniques, and unaware of lien and property security legislation, they sometimes incur the wrath of police, courts, and motorists.”

And this is whether Llewellyn’s article extends beyond Nova Scotia to address the lack of regulation and quality standards across Canada, and the hard lessons that inevitably follow. She addresses accident chasing: “A police scanner is probably a wreck chaser’s most valuable investment; at first notice of an accident they roar off to claim the booty.” And, like NBRG president Wayne Walsh, she addresses the national issue of unclaimed vehicles.

“Everything we have done seems to hit a brick wall. We’ve offered proposed regulation, standards for the industry, but nothing happens.”

In Ontario, the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) launched its Tow Zone Pilot program in 2021, an antidote to a raft of issues related to public safety, customer protection, and faster clearance on high-speed freeways. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) introduced its Towing and Storage Operators (TSO) program in 2022, also designed to bring problem operators under control.

Of course, the province’s towing associations have been sounding the bell on these issues for years, advocating for provincial regulation while also looking out for the interests of their members. As Dennis Roberts, a director with the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario (PTAO) and regular contributor to Tow Canada said in his article, Is Ontario Heading to Provincial Licensing for Tow Operators?:

“How about some protection for towers? Where is our guarantee of payment? Where is our assurance that we will be given registered owner information when we respond to a tow request? Where is the support for the operators risking their lives on the side of the road? What about huge increases in fines and loss of license for injuring or killing a tow operator? Where is our protection from vengeful insurance companies that think nothing of paying into court over fees they have paid time and again?”

Do any of these issues sound familiar? As Roberts also mentioned in his article, it is only a matter of time until the Ontario government establishes a certification system, and all stakeholders seemed to agree that an accreditation process was long overdue. Roberts is obviously correct when he states that the towing industry needs to be part of any regulatory discussion. Ever proactive and determined to raise standards in the industry, the vice president of the PTAO, Derek Didone, announced the association’s launch of a much-needed accreditation program early in 2023.  

Other provincial associations have also been making progress. In 2023, the Roadside Responders Association of Saskatchewan (RRAS) reported a substantial rate increase from the province’s public insurer, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). The association is working with SGI to develop a Master Service Agreement that is “manageable and equitable” for both parties.6 The agreement addresses insurance coverage, workers compensation coverage, a form of training, and safety compliance.

In Alberta, the Towing and Recovery Association of Alberta (TRAA) and the Alberta Motor Association (AMA), successfully lobbied the provincial government to improve roadside safety of tow and recovery operators by letting them use blue lights on their trucks, Bill 207, Traffic Safety (Tow Truck Warning Lamps) Amendment Act. The government launched “the blue light project,” in April of 2022. Alberta’s Association of Chiefs of Police also supported the bill.

Also in Alberta, an amendment to Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act, is due to take effect in 2023, requiring drivers to slow down to at least 60km/h when passing an emergency or roadside worker vehicle, including tow trucks (with flashing lights). When it comes into effect, this legislation will bring Alberta’s traffic rules in line with the three other western provinces (B.C., Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).

In B.C., the ARA and ICBC have partnered to create the LETS program (Learning, Education, Training and Sustainability) to help ensure that its towing services suppliers have the knowledge to perform their jobs safely.7 The new program focuses on traffic control and the safe handling of electric vehicles, all paid for by ICBC. In other news, B.C. also secured a rate increase for towers, though not as high as some in the industry would like, given the impact of inflation.8

And by all reports, the APDQ has continued to enjoy good relations with authorities and make progress for its members. In the last issue of Tow Canada, the association reported that it is working on revisions to the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) rate guide to increase pricing for the seizure of vehicles, improving safety for drivers by equipping trucks with green lights, and updates on the target date for the implementation of electronic logbook devices. Law 430 was also due to be revised to “prioritize good companies and good drivers.”9

Finally, on the national front, the Canada Towing Association (CTA) has picked-up the ball where TRAC left off: “In an effort to address the multitude of towing industry concerns, the CTA was established with a head office and staff working together with a board of directors to cover each area of the country.”

The list of issues that on the CTA’s agenda will look familiar: “Pricing, incident management, collision response, axle weight limits on tow trucks, abandoned vehicles, how much profit we should make, and highway safety are issues that affect us all.”

The CTA has also recently launched an online training program designed to help tow companies ensure that their new drivers have basic training. Designed by industry veteran and CTA executive director Doug Nelson, this much needed program will be accessible to all tow truck drivers in North America. (Read more on page 30 of this edition of Tow Canada.)

Final words

We have presented here a snapshot of issues related to the industry regulation, training, and standards that have appeared in Tow Canada, both in 1998 and now. It should be mentioned that we do not have information from every industry-related organization in every province. Over the last 25 years, not every province has had a functioning association prepared to feed Tow Canada updates on a regular basis, so please forgive us for what may be missing. That said, we would love to hear your perspective. If you would like to help us fill-in the picture, Tow Canada would be grateful. Submit your article or letter to the publisher ( Has anything changed? If so, what? We would love to include your insight in a future edition of Tow Canada.canad