THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Rashomon redux? Parking lot conflict heats up

Parking a car is not, as the saying goes, rocket science.

Parking in the lot at First and Market in downtown Charlottesville, however, sometimes seems like it would challenge the brainiest NASA employee.

You may recall this lot as the one where last August a septuagenarian couple, June and Paul Russell, failed to display a receipt on their dashboard, allegedly causing the very same attendant who had collected their parking fee to also call Collier's Towing to have their car towed ["Lot of confusion? Towing from Woodard property raises ire," November 15]. The incident ruined a birthday celebration and resulted in an elderly couple traipsing up and down the hills of downtown in search of their car.

A more recent incident doesn't involve an elderly couple, but it does suggests that confusion at the lot may not be unusual.

On Saturday, February 2, Ed Blankenship, his wife, Terri, and their 12-year-old son came to Charlottesville from their home in Salem to shop and, more specifically, to try out the fondue at the Melting Pot restaurant just off the Downtown Mall. After some time at Barracks Road Shopping Center, they drove down to the Mall around 5:30pm.

While driving around looking for parking, Blankenship passed up the Market Street Parking Garage, but he eventually stumbled upon the asphalt lot on First Street.

According to Blankenship, he parked his SUV, and the trio proceeded to the self-pay kiosk. While trying to figure out the pay system, he noticed a Collier's driver sniffing around his vehicle and writing something down. Concerned that the fellow was getting ready to tow the car, Blankenship sent his son over to explain the family had just arrived at the lot and was in the process of paying.

The Blankenships say that the driver told their son that their car had been in the lot for two hours and was going to be towed away. Blankenship went over to argue.

Blankenship says things got heated, mostly, actually, on his part. He told me he was not going to allow his car to be towed. 

A crowd gathered. Another Collier's driver, who I have since learned is named Dale, showed up and also insisted they would tow the car.

Blankenship said he was calling the cops. An officer arrived, at which point, Blankenship says, the second Collier's driver told the officer it was all a big mistake and they weren't going to tow Blankenship's car at all.

The Blankenships claim that explanation was bunk, and, needless to say, their evening was ruined.

But Dale expressly told me it was all a "big misunderstanding." He explained that when Blankenship's son came over to speak to the first driver, the driver thought the lad was referring to a small Honda parked nearby, not the huge SUV that just arrived.

So, what actually transpired in the parking lot that night– attempted tow or big misunderstanding? 

Maybe famed director Akira Kurosawa would find meaning in that question of conflicting accounts, but untangling the two tales may be beside the point.

The problem is the parking lot, or more accurately, the combination of the lack of an on-site attendant, a paper-driven self-pay system, a financial incentive for Collier's drivers to tow as many cars as possible (the owner tells me that drivers get 40 percent of the fees), and an increasing shortage of downtown parking.

Back when I first wrote about this lot last November, city spokesman Ric Barrick told me that the City periodically receives complaints, but he added that the lot's owner, Keith Woodard, had been responsive to the City's request to improve the signage.

Last week, Woodard e-mailed me to say he was unaware of the current situation, and while he was leaving town, was willing to get in touch with Blankenship upon his return to smooth over any lingering bad feelings.

I have no reason to doubt Woodard's gesture, and I don't question his right to operate his business and his property as he sees fit. Towing, however, is a flash point for tempers ["Towing tussle: Oxford Hill incident gets ugly, October 18, 2007], and unless something changes, I fear it is just a matter of time before the consequences of conflict at this lot will be more serious than a ruined meal.

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.



I have known the girl who owns Collier's Tow Service for a very long time. I do not think she would do anything underhanded just to make a quick buck. But people need to realize, as stated above, the tow truck drivers get paid on a commission basis. If they tow 50 vehicles each this week, they get paid on 50 vehicles. If they only tow 8 vehicles each this week, they only get paid on 8 vehicles.

Let's say the tow bill is $50 on each vehicle. And let's say the driver gets 40% of this $50, as stated above. (The owner's ex-husband used to almost always pay his drivers 50/50 when he ran Jones Wrecker Service) If a driver tows 50 vehicles this week, he gets $1,000, considered to be a pretty good week's salary in the tow business. If the driver only two 8 vehicles this week, he gets $160. Does this make the drivers a little overzealous in enforcing illegally parked cars on the parking lots they serve? Damn right it does!

When your out of gas in a car accident locked your keys in your car you may need Colliers. I have numerous times. These guys are out working rain sleet and snow. Give the working men a break they are only doing there job just like you and I. If people would learn to take a minute and read they would understand the system. I work in the parking business and the general public does not make it reasonable for parking lots and garages. If you are unsure of the rules of the lot it's a safe bet you shouldn't park there. Do us all a favor and follow the rules as posted on each lot. Dale is one of the most curteous people you will ever meet in the towing business. Neither Colliers nor Dale should have to take these harsh comments. Please find a new subject to rag on besides the towing and parking business in this town.

I think sick of local rambos said it best and i quote "Does this make the drivers a little overzealous in enforcing illegally parked cars on the parking lots they serve?" Key word ILLEGALLY not following the rules and rates. Tow all vehicles that try to skate by while the rest of us pay.

The city needs to mandate proper signage and make tow companies pay fines for towing without proper signage. One person had the opinion that colliers is great well my opinion is that they prey on loopholes to take advantage of people. They lie in wait with obscure signs and then go in for the kill. The other thing that people need to realize is that many towers pay kickbacks to parking lot owners and busineses to alert them of violations. These cretins don't report the cash most times either. Legit tow companies do not do predatory impounds. If you are taken advantage of by these types and you see a sign in a parking lot that the business or apartment complex etc uses them then tell the business owner upfront that you will no longer patronize them if they use these predatory companies. How would you feel if you go to a nice place for dinner, come out to find yourself towed and then found out that the resturant host or manager got a kickback?

towers suk (and all), if you read my reply again I said the drivers are overzelous in enforcing parking and towing.... because it's what pays them. The more they tow, the more they make. I defended the owner of Collier's Towing. I do not think she realizes her drivers are out here acting like vultures hovering over an almost dead prey. I think the owner wants a tow to be a legitimate tow when they do take place.

sicko of the Rambos... if you think she doesn't know whats going on you have been run over by too many cops. I am in the auto business. These towers THREATEN other tow companies with VIOLENCE if they try and steal their turf. It is as close to the mafia as it gets. They offer kickbacks to repair shops for calls and demand kickbacks from bodyshops for accidents they bring in. This business is as sleazy as it gets. google towing and you will see that they have a HUGE lobby that protects them under the interstate commerce clause. ^0 minutes will get to the industry one day.(and I am not slamming colliers specifically, I am slamming them all)