It has been about a year since my vehicle was towed, since I vented my spleen writing "Fear and loathing at the impound lot." In that year very little has changed about the arcane and broken impound lot and towing system in Minneapolis, except for recent discussions about putting a cap on "price gouging" towing fees.
Some private lots charge as much as $260 to tow a car. Minneapolis City Councilman Gary Schiff thinks that's too much, and is pushing to cap fees at around $195. This is a worthwhile effort, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.
There is a company in Texas called Compiled Logic which sells a modern and centralized data system to track towed vehicles. Their technology is so flexible the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico is contemplating using Compiled Logic's services to track dogs and cats.
Minneapolis needs a modern towing information management system like the one offered by Compiled Logic, but presently has an antiquated system. In 2008, citizens expect to be able to access information on the Internet 24 hours a day. Citizens of college age in particular expect government services to be modern, integrated and accessible via the Internet.
If that kind of modern system is not present, it should be (at a minimum) a planned project and a firm goal.
During the gritty and dehumanizing process of bailing my piece of junk 1990 Dodge Grand Caravan from the automobile jail, I noticed workers at the impound lot were using some kind of computer to look up information about vehicles.
That's just dandy, I thought. They can track my vehicle with a computer, but I can't access the same data about my own van. Instead, I have to call during business hours and hope somebody is in a mood to pick up the phone, which certainly didn't seem to be happening during a long stretch of time in a snow emergency in March of 2007, a virtual "towing shark feeding frenzy" of blood in the streets.
Communicating by e-mail (instead of writing to me on quaint parchment with a quill pen) two representatives of Compiled Logic told me about their company, which has a foothold in the southwestern United States and is looking to expand to cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis.
One of the most maddening things about getting towed is the issue of multiple jurisdictions and entities, all towing vehicles, and seldom sharing information in an efficient manner. It is one thing if your vehicle was towed from in front of your residence, then you might have a fairly good idea where it ended up.
But what if your vehicle was stolen and dumped somewhere? If your vehicle was stolen in Minnesota and taken on a joyride to Houston, you'd have to be a psychic to have a clue where your vehicle might be.
Furthermore, why would Houston routinely share towing information with Minneapolis or St. Paul? Even jurisdictions next to each other apparently don't share towing information very efficiently.
However, if both Minneapolis and Houston were using the same information management system, you would be able to locate your stolen, dumped and towed vehicle via the Internet, using a license plate and a VIN number.
According to Ron Smith, marketing vice president of Compiled Logic, it takes an average of 5-7 days for most Americans to recover a vehicle, and the main reason is because a lack of sharing information. This impacts everybody with "higher taxes, towing and storage fees and insurance."
Smith's company seeks to create a better world, what might be called "Towing Utopia," so law enforcement can spend more time protecting the public. Ordinary citizens won't waste their money and time chasing around after their towed vehicles as much as they do at present. And communities will have a better public image.
This last part is something I think Minneapolis should seriously scrutinize. Currently, the Twin Cities are in the middle of a public image "branding effort."
Oops, I'm not supposed to say "Twin Cities" but "Minneapolis-Saint Paul" as part of the branding effort.
As part of this (lame and doomed) Twin Cities branding effort, one might ponder the idea of citizens getting their cars towed because of changes in the weather. Think about that. Wrap your head around it. Sure, it's a part of life in the Midwest, but life is different in other parts of the country.
When I lived in El Paso, Texas, for example, one worry I had about my vehicle was whether a rattlesnake had once again slithered beneath my muffler the previous night to keep itself warm. You just didn't get towed because of routine and normal changes in the weather which - I hereby admit - can't be predicted by the acorn output of the gnarled, ancient oak tree on the Hoff estate.
If the Twin Cities wants to market its (boring) slogan of "More To Life," one might start with making the cruel and oppressive towing and impound system more humane and efficient, particularly during blizzards or those times car batteries die because subzero weather has sucked their energy into a mysterious abyss.
I still hope for the day when a personal, automated phone call will alert me that my vehicle will be towed momentarily, so I can dash over and avoid the expensive hassle. But, then again, I'd like to sleep in the back seat of my vehicle while it drives itself home.
The world is always improving. Once public libraries were a dream, now we contemplate making free wireless Internet accessible to an entire metropolis. The towing and impound system in Minneapolis, though once plenty good enough, has now become an unacceptable dinosaur.
Perhaps a perfect Towing Utopia is nowhere near.
But people like Ron Smith are trying to move us a little closer every day.
John Hoff welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.