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Legal Gray Areas

There's a rant over at the Washington Post about towing companies in the DC area. You can click through and read the article, but it sums up like this: Person can't find a legal parking space in a busy neighborhood. Person decides to park illegally instead. Person leaves the car unattended for ten minutes and car gets towed for being parked illegally. Person gets very upset. Person calls the situation "predatory". The end.

(from roujo on Flickr)

The article makes every indication that the author knew that parking in the space was illegal. There's also nothing to lead the reader to believe the towing company acted in violation of the government's regulations. If there were evidence that the towing company acted illegally, I think it would be more than fair to call this "predatory", but let's examine the situation for how it's described.

This point in particular caught my eye.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry cleaner that was closed, right next to the building entrance. And, yes, there was a sign that said towing was enforced 24 hours.
I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on. No mercy!
Emphasis mine. I see this every single day: an illegally parked car (usually doubled parked, but sometimes parked in a rush-hour zone) and the hazard flashers blinking, and I don't get it. Why do people think that putting the hazard flashers on makes an illegal parking job acceptable?

If anything, doing this does two things. First, it draws attention to the vehicle, so that the nearest parking enforcement officer can ticket the car, or call for a tow, or both. Second, it's an admission of guilt. The person parking illegally clearly knows it's wrong but does it anyway. You never see legally parked cars with hazard flashers on... The only thing I can think of is that this maneuver might prevent someone else from rear-ending the illegally parked car.

There has been a lot of discussion about ethics in transportation recently. First a debate over whether cameras should be allowed to catch speeders. Then a series of articles about whether it's OK for bicyclists to go through red lights. Now this about whether it's "predatory" for a company to tow an illegally parked car. All we need is someone to write an article about whether jaywalking is acceptable and we'll have hit the transportation ethics trifecta.

One common theme seems to come out in these pieces. A non-negligible number of people will say "it's totally illegitimate and unacceptable to bust speeders or illegal parkers if the speeding or illegal parking wasn't too bad".  There are people who will say "of course bicyclists need to go through red lights for X, Y and Z reasons".

Point is, it doesn't matter what the mode of transportation is in question, law breaking is rampant out there. The question is when and if law breaking should be tolerated. Should going 5 mph over the speed limit be ignored but 15 mph over not? Should illegally parking for 10 minutes be tolerated by illegally parking for 30 minutes not? How do we draw that line?

It's a very difficult conversation to have because the public opinion is not black and white. Instead, we're in a weird gray area where it's really difficult to decide on the appropriate shade of gray.


Ann J said…
she also spoke of cars that were legally parked, e.g., family dining in restaurant while parked in its parking lot, donors at Goodwill. What recourse do they have? Do they get their money back? I asked at my gym about a wrongful tow and was told that the company must return the car to the gym - too bad however about the several hours lost in this endeavor.
Rob Pitingolo said…
The Yelp reviews about the Goodwill situation are vaguely written, but here's what it sounds like...

The first story seems to indicate that the motorist parked in the Goodwill parking lot, then went immediately into a restaurant to eat. Technically, this is illegal, even if the motorist later had intention of going to Goodwill. Again, a gray area that's arguably unfair.

The second indicates that the motorist parked in another business's parking lot, then shopped at Goodwill - also technically illegal, though this particular story does sound pretty shady in the way it was handled.

The wrongful tow at the gym sounds like like they the tow company got it wrong. I'd press the gym for compensation in this situation or else end the relationship with the gym.
Mark Power said…
Evidently you haven't seen the rampant disregard for parking regulations by commercial traffic, particularly in DC. For years driving in DC is like negotiating an obstacle course as you try to get around numerous trucks of all sizes double parked or taking up illegal spaces as they go about their business. So of course people in their cars think it's OK to take a minute or two to pick up dry-cleaning. Let's enforce the law for everybody or for none.
Rob Pitingolo said…
Mark Power, I do see commercial vehicles disregard parking regulations often. In fact, I frequently see parking enforcement officers writing tickets to delivery trucks illegally parked in the rush hour zone near my office. It seems like the drivers treat it simply as a cost of doing business. I wouldn't be so quick to assume that because commercial vehicles are doing this doesn't mean they're not getting caught.

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