Ontario government introduces tow area pilot to suppress highway corruption

The Ontario government will contract out sections of some Greater Toronto Area highways to towing operators as part of a pilot project aimed at curbing corruption and violence within the province’s troubled tow-truck industry.

A request for bids for a “tow zone pilot” is expected to be rolled out before the end of the year, the provincial government said Monday.

Expected to take effect next summer, the pilot project is one of the first steps in the government’s broader plan to overhaul the industry, which, as reported by a Globe and Mail investigation in February, has been plagued by a deadly tow-truck turf war for more than two years.

Details of the project were first presented to stakeholders as part of a consultation process this fall. Contracts will be issued for designated sections of provincial highways, such as the 400, 401 and the QEW. But some stakeholders say the scope of the pilot – which will focus on commercial vehicle towing and not personal vehicles such as cars – is too narrow to effectively curb the violence.

Since 2018, more than 50 trucks have been set on fire and at least four men with ties to the industry have been killed, as tow-truck drivers compete for bigger slices of a lucrative segment of the industry known as collision towing or “chasing.”

Some peripheral businesses – such as body shops, car-rental companies and physiotherapy clinics – will pay tow-truck drivers to send clients their way after a crash. A single car can generate thousands in profits and, as a result, the industry is rife with fraud.

In one case, a Toronto-area lawyer who specialized in representing insurance companies in civil lawsuits against tow-truck operators was forced to shut down her firm after the office was twice set on fire and then shot up in broad daylight last September.

A joint-forces police investigation led by York Regional Police, dubbed Project Platinum, was launched in February to crack down on the violence. In the months since, close to 60 people have been arrested. Three people were arrested this past Monday alone, including an insurance adjuster who police said has been charged with fraud in connection with staged collisions.

Four police officers have also been separately charged in Ontario this year, in connection with towing-related fraud schemes.

In June, Premier Doug Ford assured the industry that the “party’s over,” and announced the creation of a task force to address corruption within the industry.

The consultation process, which included input from more than 70 industry stakeholders, “informed the need for the tow zone pilot project as an immediate measure that would help identify licensing, regulatory and operational requirements in an effort to reduce various challenges related to towing practices,” Natasha Tremblay, spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, who is leading the task force, said Monday.

The goal, she said, is to ensure that “towing and recovery services are provided by qualified towing companies that possess the required experience, equipment and training to safely and quickly remove disabled and damaged vehicles from the highway and that services are provided at reasonable costs to the public.”

Teresa Di Felice, assistant vice-president of government and community relations for CAA South Central Ontario, said she is hopeful that the pilot will not only address problems within the towing industry but also issues of overall road safety: “CAA has long talked about the need for solutions to deal with congestion as a result of major highway incidents,” she said, “and [the pilot] will hopefully lower the number of secondary collisions that arise from the impact these have.”

Mark Graves, head of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, says he believes it’s a good start but does not go far enough. He’d like to see the pilot also include towing contracts for car crashes and breakdowns. He also believes the geographic limitations of the pilot project will just shift the “chasing” problem to other parts of the province.

“What it’s doing is pushing all the guys that believe that they won’t get the contract out of those [contracted] areas into new areas,” he said.

York Regional Police Superintendent Michael Slack, who led the Project Platinum investigation, said the tow zone pilot will target some of the most desirable sections of highway: “There will still be opportunities for fraudulent activity to occur, but by having this pilot in place in what are essentially the most lucrative locations, this will go a long way to … remove the value of the locations [they] fight over,” he said.

He, too, would like to see the towing contracts extended beyond commercial vehicle tows: “The violence we’ve seen is centred around all towing, not just commercial – and the majority of towing is not commercial. This will go a long way but ideally, the same requirements in place for all towing in these locations … is what [will be] required to make an impact.”

In the meantime, the violence has not let up. On Nov. 27, a tow truck parked on a Richmond Hill street was found fully engulfed in flames around 3:30 a.m. Half an hour later, police were called to a second tow-truck fire outside a home in Whitchurch-Stouffville. When emergency responders arrived, the driver had extinguished the flames – but this one, too, was an arson.

On Dec. 2, York Regional Police were called to a Newmarket home where a tow truck had been torched in a driveway around 3:25 a.m. On Dec. 9, another tow truck was set alight in the driveway of another Newmarket home.

This article first published here www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-government-announces-tow-zone-pilot-to-curb-roadway-corruption/