Wreck Chasers: A reality TV show pits towers vs. towers in Philly


Published: 12/17/2010

by Jill Coley


A driver is cut off by another vehicle. She scrapes the side of her car along a cement column, stopping under a dimly lit overpass in Philadelphia. Before the police arrive, one tower pulls up to the scene, followed moments later by another.

          Although Philadelphia has police towing rotation, many towers bypass the protocol by listening to first-responder scanners and beating them to the scene. With a customer’s agreement in hand, the deal is done before police arrive.

          Miguel “Mickey” Caban, owner of 1-Unit, is the second tower to arrive. He insists the first tower is not legitimate and does not have proper stickers on display. “Every tow means money for us,” Caban says in the glare of the camera’s light. “If the competition smells weakness, they’re going to take advantage of us and our business.”

          The driver, slightly baffled, is pushed aside by the towers facing-off and a swelling group of onlookers, all surrounded by a camera crew jostling to capture the confrontation. 

          The scene is from “Wreck Chasers,” a new series that began airing in November on Discovery Channel. According to the show’s promoters, more than 200 registered towing companies and as many as 2,000 towers prowl the streets of Philadelphia, ears pricked to scanners, eager to race to a wreck scene.

          The show is pumped full of adrenaline: Towers block competitors with their trucks, cutting each other off. They posture and yell. The public gets in the rough action, too. A belligerent car owner is wrestled to the ground in a parking lot and another angry customer is harassed with a pit bull in the impound yard.

          But rather than see themselves as mudslingers in this reality show, staff members of 1-Unit brand themselves as keepers of the peace. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we can help people,” Caban said. “The cops are so busy handling crime. We show up; people are fighting, people are hurt. We can calm them down. We live in a rough neighborhood. We’re used to that.”

          Caban also sees himself protecting people from other towers. “These guys out here just buy a tow truck and try to make a name for themselves and give us a bad reputation. They think it’s easy. And it’s not,” he said. “We’re out here to protect our reputation. They come out here with no tow stickers and try to take advantage.”


Going Negative

          Despite Caban’s intentions, wreck-chasing is a practice fundamentally frowned upon by well-respected professionals in the industry. The Pennsylvania Towing Association (PTA) opposes it — wreck-chasers, often unlicensed, will steal business from towers who are responding to legitimate calls, a practice that adds to an already negative view of the industry. It is very disturbing for towing customers, said PTA official Cathy Tennis. “People are upset — they just had something major happen. Normally, law enforcement calls a tower from the rotation or asks the person where they want it towed.”   

          The portrayal on the TV show of wreck-chasing as an acceptable business approach sullies the entire industry’s reputation, she said. “It’s bad advertising,” Tennis said. “People immediately think that’s what everyone does. And we have towers out there every day helping law enforcement and first responders.”      Insurance companies may also take note, she said. “When insurance companies see a show like this, they may go on guard thinking that everyone is trying to take advantage.”

Hard To Stop

          Earl Mumma, president of Highspire Auto and Truck Repair in Steelton, PA, agreed that it’s a problem but doesn’t see how it can be stopped. “It’s a free country. You can drive around and sell your services,” he said. “If a guy comes out and convinces you he can tow your car for less, that’s the American way.”

          Towers can be their own worst enemies, Mumma said. “A guy comes along who is working without insurance and is untrained,” he said. “It’s hard for a legitimate business – with workman’s compensation, liability, truck inspections – to compete.”

          Moreover, the first priority of the authorities is to clear the roadway, so it’s often difficult to enforce the rotation. “Police probably like it because they don’t care who takes it away. They want to take the report and get on their way,” Mumma said.

          Besides, there’s little police can do when a person agrees to have their car towed. Philadelphia police have gone off-air to dispatch silently via laptop in an effort to reduce scanner eavesdropping. Fire and rescue, however, are still on broadcast frequencies.

On The Case

          While the practice of wreck-chasing can be entrenched, especially in larger cities, Tennis said the Pennsylvania Towing Association nevertheless is working for change. “We have been working with different state officials to find a way that would help curb wreck-chasing,” she said. “We feel it’s important to take care of and find a better way.”

          However, Redz Elliott, manager of 1-Unit, worries that a lot of small but legitimate, licensed businesses would suffer if wreck chasing was stopped, since some are just competing to survive. But following a spate of violence in 2010 – a shooting and arson in July and a homicide in September – backlash against the practice has increased. Elliott said he is working with other towers and Philadelphia City Council members to try to change the rules without hurting owners.

          Surprisingly, Elliott agrees with his show’s critics and, like them, wants to protect the profession’s reputation: “A few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. There are always good and bad people in the business,” he said. “The industry is full of good, professional people with good equipment who provide good services.”

          Like most qualities, however – good, bad, and professional – are relative. And on the dark streets of Philadelphia, a driver surrounded by a growing scrum of unlicensed wreck-chasers may be well served by a legitimate tower who pulls up with a loud bark. Like Elliott.