If you’ve ever had to have your car towed away from the scene of an accident, or hauled out of a parking garage because the motor wouldn’t start, then you already know what a tow truck driver does. They move cars, trucks, motorcycles and other equipment out of the way when these items can’t be moved the normal way.
There are basically three types of tow trucks: the conventional low truck with a hook and sling used to raise one end of the vehicle for towing, wheel-lift or full-float trucks that put an extra set of wheels under one or both axles and flat-bed tow trucks that carry the entire car flat on a bed. They type of truck depends on the particular situation: when stuck in a small parking garage, the tower would prefer to use a conventional low truck rather than a flat-bed.
Many tow truck drivers learn how to operate the vehicles with on the job training. There is no specific educational requirement, but many employers prefer to hire high school graduates. When a new hire starts a towing job, an experienced driver explains the safety procedures and company policies. However, like many professions, towing has become increasingly complicated in recent decades, leading to a need for more organized training programs.
The Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA) offers a certification program for people who already have practical experience in towing. You can either take this training in person or online.
TRAA has the only national standards for tow truck operators, and they provide the only National Driver Certification Program, which covers safety, customer service, incident management, truck and equipment. There are three levels of TRAA training. To begin Level I, or Light Duty, training, you must meet all state driving requirements and have at least 90 days experience working on a tow truck in the last five years.
After you register for the certification program, TRAA will send you a study guide. You are responsible for reviewing the guide before the test, and you must score at least 80 percent to pass. The Level I test includes 100 questions, which you can either take online or on paper. To do the computer test, you have to go to a specific testing location and make an appointment for the test. The computer version is more expensive, but you can take the test at your convenience and you get your results immediately. If you pass, you will receive your certificate by fax within a few business days. If you prefer to take the test in pencil, then you will have to wait for a set testing date. TRAA administers these exams at Tow Shows and at community colleges. With the paper test, it may take a month to find out if you passed.
The Level II certification requires one year of employment as a medium/heavy duty truck towing and recovery operator. You must already hold a CDL ABC and meet all the driver’s requirements for your state. You must also already hold the Level I certification. Since this certification focuses on recovering tractor-trailers and other large vehicles, the exam is twice as long, at 200 questions.
The Level III, Heavy Duty Certification is the most involved testing process. You must already have a CDL with endorsements, a Level II Master Tower Certification, and two years of experience as a towing specialist. There is both a written and oral part of the Level III exam. The written segment covers the basic theoretical knowledge that you need in order to safely recover large vehicles. The oral segment is designed to see how you think in a real-life situation.
Tow truck drivers work in all kinds of weather. Snow, ice and otherwise miserable situations cause dead batteries and car crashes. A driver who doesn’t want to go out in the cold will not only be losing money, he’ll be stranding people who really need help.
In the best of situations, tow truck drivers can injure themselves just from hooking up the vehicle. If you add in treacherous traffic conditions, road hazards, or unsafe environments, the odds of getting hurt increase. Heavy duty towers might be exposed to hazardous materials.
For every worker involved in vehicle recovery, safety must always come first to avoid personal injury and vehicle damage.
Tow truck drivers work face-to-face with people who are often in stressful situations. Your potential clients may have just wrecked their cars, parked illegally, run out of gas, or experienced some other misfortune. This customer may see you as coming to their rescue, or they might see you as part of the problem. Since towing is never something one prepares for and sets aside money, they are likely to argue over pricing, timing, and care of their vehicle. Some towers repossess vehicles from people who can’t pay their debts. In this work situation, you will experience some very angry drivers, who must be handled carefully to avoid escalating the situation.
When the weather is bad and accidents happen, tow drivers will be extremely busy. You might be working 20-30 hours straight, only taking breaks for the restroom and snacks on the go. These busy times can be lucrative, but they make it hard to plan and schedule your life. If you thrive on predictability and reliable scheduling, tow truck driving is probably not the best job choice.
Towing can be a lucrative job for people who are willing to jump into action as soon as they get a call. Although some estimates place average yearly earnings in the low-20s, efficient and reliable workers can easily earn more. As the number of cars on the road increases, the number of cars needing tows will increase.
As you advance in your career, you can move from working for a towing company to owning your own tow truck and securing towing contracts with police departments, community management companies and city and town governments.