In Praise of Wrecker Drivers as Unsung Heroes

By: Wojciech Kic

It is hard not to love Houston’s freeways.They resemble a giant toy box — you get in it and play.

Driving the freeways you quickly notice thousands of other cars and trucks sharing the road with you, often at speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour. With all that traffic the number of vehicle collisions appears amazingly small. Frequently, one can drive for a week or more and see no car collisions at all.

The distribution of demand for each single parcel of freeway at any moment in time is perfect. When two vehicles cause a collision it is called an accident. The accident is that two cars want to be on the same parcel of freeway at the same time.

On occasion, we pass vehicles disabled due to mechanical breakdowns or a malfunction not involving an accident. Whether a driver is running out of gas on an already “low fuel” warning light or an engine is overheating on a hot summer day, many breakdowns represent a failure of chance-taking on the part of vehicle owners. At other times, we spot vehicles disabled due to accidental reasons, such as a tire blowout due to a manufacturer’s defect.

In a single week earlier this month, for example, Houston freeways experienced a mere 100 disabled vehicles per day.The number of freeway breakdowns compared to the millions of car and truck trips daily is statistically insignificant.

The so-called wreckers clear disabled vehicles from the freeway system. In a typical setting, a disabled car is removed from the freeway in a negotiation between the wrecker driver and the car owner.

If the cars are involved in accidents and owners are unable to make a decision about the fate of a car, the decision to clear the disabled car from the freeway is made by a police officer on the scene.

The need to remove disabled vehicles from the freeway is obvious.The freeways represent the most efficient transportation network for people and cargo. Block the freeway, or slow down traffic, and the affected area would soon experience an economic impact on the well-being of residents.

The wreckers provide the highway clean-up system not entirely out of regard for public welfare. On the contrary, wrecker drivers provide the services to earn income as a result of the opportunity the disabled vehicles represent.

The wreckers know the freeway system extremely well.Their daily observation of freeway construction, holiday schedules, regular traffic patterns and freeway design flow allows them to respond to disabled cars frequently before the arrival of a police vehicle.

The wrecker drivers represent all types of individuals.Their cabins are often filled with the sounds of hard rock, Latino radio and half-finished lunches.

While a financial incentive is necessary to continue operating wreckers, satisfaction for
a well-done job and making a contribution to the community represent daily justification to stay in business. Removing the road kill, the disabled car, for the benefit of thousands, often accompanied by car owner curses, sweat, dirt and torn jeans, outweighs the desire to quit.

The distribution of demand for wrecker services is uneven throughout the year. On a typical day, as many as 20 to 30 wreckers may compete for one disabled car. During city emergencies, after hurricanes or a tropical depression, wreckers save the day. The abandoned and damaged car clean-up is immediate.The city business is restored. The economic prosperity, dependent on a stable of towing trucks, remains intact.

In an economy dependent on a well functioning freeway system, the wrecker drivers are unsung heroes.

Under the recent attempt by the City of Houston, wreckers are now assigned to service exclusive parcels of freeways.The tow business is no longer based on an opportunity derived from the knowledge of the city highway arteries but a bureaucratic application.

The monopoly owners of blocks of freeway no longer need to bother with a quick meal.The profit for hauling off a disabled vehicle is secured in advance.Within pre-defined sections of freeways the competition for a disabled car is largely limited.

The new regulations allowing pre-assigned wreckers to remove stalled vehicles from
the freeways have met with public confusion. Future adjustments to the new towing regulations anticipate that vehicle maintenance will improve in response to coerced tows.

Free tow proposals would offset the burden of occasional car maintenance oversight. Low gas? No problem. How about a free tow to a gas station?

Without a sufficient number of wreckers, police power alone is not enough to keep the freeways clean. A regulation of the towing business may impact the inventory of some 1,000 tow trucks in the area. During massive floods, a shortage of tows may prove disastrous.

So, let’s not diminish the benefits of Houston’s free enterprise system. Fat bellies and cheap houses are evidence that the economic model of Houston is working. Continuity of our prosperity is dependent on free-flowing traffic.

The sight of wreckers congregating and fighting for towage business communicates a climate of opportunity. In the ultra-competitive global economy of the 21st century, it is Houston’s free-wheeling business model that has the only chance of survival.The wreckers are its guardians.

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