Lawmakers seek solution to vehicle-impound law's mess

Published: Thursday, May 18 2000 10:20 a.m. MDT

Everyone wants to crack down on drunken drivers, but the state has a law that nobody likes. Police, tow truck drivers, county officials, tax commission — nobody.

The animosity is partly because of the following scenario: A drunken driver gets in a wreck. The driver takes off without the car. The car is towed to an impound lot where it sits unclaimed, damaged and useless. And that opens up a can of worms.

Often times, the drunken driver doesn't know what has happened to his car, legislative analyst Benjamin Christensen told the Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee Wednesday.

The state doesn't like it because of all the red tape.

And what's got some officials really upset is a $200 impoundment fee that was doubled for drunken drivers this year.

"When the fee went to $200, I was petrified," said Cache County Assessor Kathleen Howell. "You can imagine who they'll take it out on."

At issue is a complicated set of rules under the state's law for driving under the influence. A DUI isn't the only offense where a vehicle is impounded, but it was the primary focus of lawmakers' attention.

The Utah State Tax Commission regulates state impoundment of vehicles. It requires police to impound in certain circumstances and oversees how towing companies impound, sell or dispose of vehicles.

An example of the red tape is the so-called pink slip given to the driver at the time the car is impounded.

The driver often looses the slip and wants state officials to track down the location of his vehicle, said Barry Conover, deputy director of the tax commission. Another problem is the $200 fee.

"About 75 percent of the time the driver is the owner of the vehicle," Conover said. "But 25 percent of the time, the owner is not the buyer. But the owner has to pay."

For example, if the car is stolen, and the thief gets caught driving drunk, then the owner has to pay the $200 fee — not the thief — to get the vehicle back, added others.

That presents another problem.

"What's common in DUIs," is that the DUI investigation will turn into a stolen-car investigation, said Craig Allred, director of highway safety with the Department of Public Safety. One out of five times, what will happen is a drunken driver will crash, leave the scene and report the car stolen, he added. Then tow truck companies inherit the problem.

"On average, 50 percent of the vehicles impounded never get claimed from our yard," said Dave Woodbury, a tow truck driver who represents the Utah Professional Towing Association. "It's a loss. A matter of losing money," he added.

It gets even more complicated.

When Cache County took over the task of processing impounded vehicles, it was no big deal, Howell said. But now vehicles are being impounded for a variety of reasons: abandoned on the street, non-registration or no insurance. And the impoundment fee became more costly through time, going from $25 in 1982 to $100 in 1998 and then $200 this year.

"You start adding fees, and it's us who has to face the taxpayer," said Howell. Last year on a few occasions, she said she had to call security to fend off irate car owners.

The Utah Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (UACIR) is searching for a solution. Lawmakers will revisit the issue.

"We'd like to bring a bill before the committee in the next few months," said Keith Bishop of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. "The UACIR just needs to approve it first."

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