The driveable car

On January 2, 2001, Downing Smith was suffering an especially potent form of misery: double pneumonia, a high fever, freezing weather– and a house call from Lethal Wrecker.

Smith says that when he saw my last column on Lethal ["Fan’s folly or… a lethal night at the arena?," February 28, 2002], the memory of that wretched day came back, and the next time he saw me– we're neighbors– he told me his story.

Lethal didn't drop by uninvited; Smith had called AAA and requested that his Volvo station wagon be towed to Herb Brown Volvo for repair. The tow truck arrived, Smith's car was loaded onto the flatbed, and he was headed back to bed– when, Smith claims, the driver asked to be paid.

The problem: AAA tows are supposed to be free. Or, at least the first three miles. Smith was prepared to pay a surcharge ($2 per mile after the first three), but the driver, according to Smith, never mentioned an extra-mileage fee and seemed to expect the full amount. (Smith also claims that the driver refused to accept his AAA card.) So Smith went inside and called Lethal's owner, George Morris– who, Smith alleges, said, "I don't have to do business with you," and hung up.

When Smith went outside again, he discovered that Morris had already called the driver and told him to unload the car– which, to Smith's alarm the driver was taking back up his narrow, twisting driveway. He could tell that the car was being scratched by encroaching bushes, and yelled at the driver to stop. When he didn't, Smith called the police so that the situation could be documented.

After that, he called AAA again: Craig's Towing was dispatched, and the car finally made it to Herb Brown.

"I'm wary of any customer-service business that calls itself Lethal," says Randy Green, director of public affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who was chagrined to hear of Smith's experience and added that in the past he had "voiced that concern" to the AAA employee who manages the towing contracts.

Green went on to say that Smith had "every right and reason" to object to the driver's demand for payment up front, especially since he didn't even mention the $2/mile fee and, apparently, intended to collect Lethal's regular (i.e., non-AAA) towing fee.

AAA recommends that if the driver says the tow will exceed three miles, the member either ride along in the tow truck or follow it, in order to get the mileage; under no circumstances should the driver expect payment before completing the trip (however, most people– Smith included– probably would have been happy to accept a driver's estimate of the distance and pay the extra $6 or $8, especially if they were as sick as Smith was that day).

If a member is "at all uncomfortable" with the towing company dispatched, Green says, he or she should call AAA again and ask for a supervisor.

I called George Morris at Lethal, who recalled the situation– but had a very different story to tell. The problem arose, he said, when the driver told Smith that in order to avoid scratching the car, he would have to push it down the driveway to the street before loading it onto the truck. Smith, however, refused, and the driver reluctantly followed his orders to load the car onto the flatbed at the top of the driveway. Sure enough, the car got scratched. That was when Lethal, not Smith, called the police, Morris claimed.

Hmmm... sounds like Morris may not have been privy to one crucial detail: the car was drivable. Smith wanted it delivered to Herb Brown only because it died whenever he took his foot off the accelerator. In fact, because Craig's sent two employees instead of one, they decided to have one drive the car and the other follow in the tow truck in case it broke down.

In other words, instead of refusing to allow the driver to push the car down the driveway if he was worried about scratching it, Smith could have simply told him to drive it there.

Morris, however, didn't want to discuss the details, and after threatening to "do something" if I kept writing about Lethal, said, "Don't call back here again," and– you guessed it– hung up on me.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? E-mail the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second St. NW, 22902.