Clearing a Path: Improving Seattle Police’s Towing Practices

Home » Clearing a Path: Improving Seattle Police’s Towing Practices

On November 12 a crash occurred on the West Seattle Bridge during morning rush hour. Our Fire and Police Departments immediately responded to the scene. There were no injuries, but the disabled vehicle blocked the eastbound left lane. A tow truck did not arrive for nearly ninety minutes, resulting in major delays across West Seattle as traffic backed up behind the crash. After the incident, I contacted the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Seattle Department of Transportation Director (SDOT) to ask why the tow took so long.

The Police provided me with the following summary:tow

  • 0623- Traffic unit T55 arrived on scene
  • 0624- Fire and Medics arrived on scene
  • 0625- Backing Units arrived on scene
  • 0632- Officer requested GT Towing for a private tow
  • 0634- GT called and cancelled and said the driver indicated they will call AAA themselves
  • 0703- Received a return call from AAA indicating they could not get a tow truck there for at least 2 hours
  • 0709- Officer made another request for ABC towing for a private tow
  • 0745- Tow truck arrived on scene

The Police also provided the following statement:

“Seattle police officers do not have authority when the driver is present to remove the vehicle with a city contracted tow company.  Additionally, officers cannot recommend a specific tow company over another, this is to ensure all tow companies have equal access to the job.

It may be worthwhile for Council to review limited authority for officers to order a tow if the vehicle(s) are blocking a limited access roadway or pre identified major arterial, this would take specific legislation followed by education and specific requirements for Law Enforcement to follow.” 

I double-checked with the Police Department and asked, “Do you mean to say that if an individual can reject the officer’s proposed towing company the Police have to wait until the person’s selected towing company shows up no matter how that affects traffic?” The answer from SPD was “yes.” I was told that the only way that policy could change was through legislation that had to be approved by the City Council!

I immediately requested the City Attorney to draft legislation to give the Police Department the authority needed to clear the scene as soon as possible. Within a day I learned from the City Attorney that the Police Department in fact already has the authority, as long as “the vehicle is impeding or is likely to impede the normal flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”[1] In other words, no new legislation is needed.

I have since spoken with Police Chief O’Toole about what I had learned from the City Attorney and she assured me that she would have officers trained to eliminate the confusion. She will make it clear that SPD officers do have the authority to have a vehicle towed under such circumstances.

As we all know, our transportation network is so vulnerable that just a single crash at the wrong place and time can cause city-wide delays. The hours of delay that we have been experiencing on the SR-99 corridor and also on the West Seattle Bridge corridor are incredibly frustrating. One way the delays could be significantly reduced is through better procedures, training, and coordination to clear a collision.

In addition to working on this issue, on December 9 at 9:30 a.m. I will also be hosting a discussion in the Transportation Committee to learn more about the June 10 5½ hour closure of SR-99 and SDOT and SPD’s new emergency incident response plan for these types of major closures. As a West Seattle commuter, I understand first-hand the importance of resolving issues which prohibit the flow of traffic on the West Seattle Bridge in times of accident and cause needless time lost sitting in traffic.

I would like to thank each and every West Seattle resident who has taken the time to share detailed information about their experiences last week on the West Seattle Bridge.  I received a number of accounts of 90-minute delays, which simply isn’t acceptable.


[1] In fact, we already have an ordinance, SMC 11.30.040.A.1 which states, “A vehicle may be impounded with or without citation and without giving prior notice to its owner as required in Section 11.30.060 hereof only under the following circumstances: 1. When the vehicle is impeding or is likely to impede the normal flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”  This would seem to authorize an officer to call for a police impound even if the driver is in attendance.  In addition, where a vehicle driver fails to promptly remove the vehicle, and is therefore in violation of RCW 46.61.560(2), a strong argument can be made that the police officer has the authority to call for a police impound.