In 2000, three of the biggest 20-something stars of the moment -- Ashton Kutcher, Seann William Scott and Jennifer Garner -- starred in a movie called “Dude, Where’s My Car.” The film looked so stupid that despite my love of juvenile humor, I never had any interest in seeing it, and haven’t to this day.
While the trailer was inane, the title was a stroke of genius. It resonated with me at the time, and still does two decades later. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Who among us hasn’t emerged from a store or mall into a packed parking lot only to wonder where the heck you parked? And I know many people, like me, have returned to where their car was parked and found it’s not there, having been towed away.
State and local towing laws, where they exist, vary widely in both their scope and their power. Taking advantage of that inconsistency, and the knowledge that most drivers are unaware of the laws that protect them, predatory towing companies snatch cars and then create a gauntlet of financial and logistical obstacles to getting the vehicles back.
This mind-numbing and wallet-lightening process became part of my life story back in the ‘90s when I was working at NBC Nightly News.
I was living in Manhattan, but given my love of walking and the dearth and cost of parking in the city, I kept my car at my grandmother’s house in Queens. One day, I took a day off from work for a job interview across the Hudson River in New Jersey. After I awoke with hours to spare, I took the subway to the bus to my grandma’s to pick up my car. That’s when I realized I had left my resume at the office, and in the era before ubiquitous email, you had to bring a hard copy to an interview.
I rushed back on the Long Island Expressway, through the Midtown Tunnel to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, put on my emergency blinkers, jumped out of my car and dashed upstairs to the third floor newsroom to get my resume. I parked right near this famous sign on either W. 49th Street or W. 50th Street -- I don’t remember which side of the building I parked on.
I couldn’t have been away for more than five minutes, but when I got back, the first thing that went through my mind was a profane variation of “Dude, where’s my car?” If I remember correctly a quarter century later, I went to the police station in 30 Rock and was told that it had probably been towed (at which point my thought was, “How did that happen so fast?”) and I would need to go to some West Side yard to pick it up.
Like anyone who’s had their car towed, I was befuddled and all I could think about was getting my vehicle back. When I eventually tracked down my car in a seedy riverside lot, I was told I’d need to pay $100 cash to get it back. I have rarely ever carried that much cash, and definitely not with the minimal hourly pay I earned back then. Fortunately, I had enough money in the bank, but not having seen an ATM anywhere near the towing lot, I decided to take a cab to my interview in Jersey and then return to get my car later.
No one I knew had cell phones in the mid-’90s, few (not me!) had car phones, and I had been preoccupied with repossessing my car. I never contacted the interviewer to let him know I’d be late. When I finally showed up at his office three hours later, I ended up waiting in the lobby for what seemed like forever, then received a perfunctory 15-minute interview (which was probably more than I deserved), then something along the lines of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I’ve led a charmed life. I had the money to retrieve my car. Not getting that job didn’t have any measurable impact on my quality of life. For other people, a similar series of events could be a life-changer. What if someone doesn’t have enough money? What if someone misses out on a job opportunity that’s the best chance to feed her family?
We should not tolerate predatory towing practices, period. No one -- rich, poor or in between -- should have to deal with the unfair repercussions.
Some states have set maximum towing rates, mandated that towing companies accept credit cards and implemented other policies to protect drivers. But the patchwork of arcane rules is difficult to keep up with. That’s why I’m grateful to my colleagues at U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Consumer Watchdog team for producing a new state-by-state compendium detailing your rights and predatory companies’ wrongs. Hopefully, this information will spur state and local lawmakers in places with fewer regulations to adopt best practices to protect their residents.
Their constituents will appreciate it. While some people may enjoy the movie “Dude, Where’s My Car,” no one wants to live it -- or in my case, re-live it.