Bottom Line
Avoiding the tow jam
Knowledge, planning and patience can save money and sanity when a breakdown occurs

By Jeff Barker
contributing writer


It’s really not a matter of if, but a matter of when, you need to call a tow truck.

Whether it’s to get your rig to a shop for repairs, to a warm building to thaw out your gelled fuel, or to pull it out of a muddy ditch after a mishap, there will be a time when you need to have your truck towed.

Saving your money and sanity when you call a tow truck is as simple as arming yourself with all the information you can about your situation and options, giving the towing company all the details they need, and ask only for what is necessary.

Get to know what you need
If your truck is stuck and just needs to be pulled out of mud or snow, a typical tow truck with a hook bar and chains should be able to handle that job.

If your truck is connected to a trailer that has a chance of tipping over because of its high center of gravity then a second truck may be needed to hook straps around the trailer to keep it upright. While it may cost more money for that second truck, it will save your truck from being rolled over with the trailer and damaged.

In situations where your truck breaks down on the road, your first priority needs to be making your truck visible to other motorists. If you’re on the shoulder, put out your orange safety triangles.

If you break down in a travel lane, call the police department or highway patrol while you’re putting out the triangles so they can send out an officer to divert traffic. Then try to get in contact with a towing company.

If you don’t need your trailer towed – for example, if you can get another tractor to grab your trailer – a tow truck with a hook bar and chains will be enough. The tow truck can tow your tractor from the rear by securing the tow bar to the rear of the frame and raising the rear axles off of the ground.

A good tow truck operator will chain the axle assemblies to the frame before raising the wheels off the ground to prevent damage to your air ride suspension. He or she will then tie the steering wheel to prevent the front axle from steering the tractor off course. The tow operator will need to hang a signal light panel on the front of your tractor and run a light cord to it.

A tow truck with an “under-reach” will be needed for towing straight trucks or tractors with the trailers connected. The under-reach is designed to be securely clamped to the steer axle, and the boom it’s attached to will lift that axle off the ground for towing.

When any tractor or straight truck is towed more than a few hundred feet with its drive axles on the ground, either the driveshaft needs to be disconnected from the front drive axle or the axle shafts will need to be removed to prevent damage to the drive train.

If there’s more than one person or you have a large dog, ask the towing company’s dispatcher if their tow truck has a sleeper berth for them to ride in. Many tow trucks are day cabs and only have two seats in them.

No sleeper? You may need to call a taxi cab if the towing company doesn’t offer to send someone out in another vehicle to pick up your co-driver, spouse, or other companion.

Making the call
First, you really need to be careful about which towing company you call. A lot of reputable towing companies have been around for years, but there are also plenty of fly-by-nighters out there.

In some situations, the last thing you need is an incompetent tow truck operator who could cause serious damage to your equipment and not carry the proper insurance to cover the claim afterward.

Good truck dealer service departments know that it’s not in their best interests to deal with just any towing outfit out there if they expect to maintain their reputation. If you can, call a truck dealer near where you’re at and ask them to recommend a towing company.

Many Freightliner and Peterbilt dealerships across the nation are open 24/7 most days of the year and may be where you need to have your truck towed to dependent on your needs.

Explain your situation to a tow company in detail so they know what kind of equipment to bring. Ask them for an e-mail address so you can take photos with your cell phone and send them some photos so they have a better idea of what they are getting into, especially if your truck is stuck.

Let them know where you’re needing the truck towed to. Ask for an estimated time of arrival so you can let law enforcement officers know before they decide to call out another tow truck.

If a dealer recommends a towing company, let the towing company know immediately that you are paying the tow bill directly. That helps keep the tow bill from being marked up and charged to the repair bill.

All too often the particular tow truck you need may be on another call and not able to get to you for a while. This can test anyone’s patience to no end, which I know all too well myself.

They’re here
Tow truck operators should look at everything upon arrival so they know what they need to do.

Many of them are also mechanics who may be familiar with common problems with your truck and may be able to fix minor stuff on the spot.

Otherwise, when the truck must be towed, the first line of business is to be sure the under-reach can get to your truck’s steer axle. If you have a front bumper with a very low ground clearance, they may need to remove it. This could mean an additional labor charge to the standard hook-up fee.

Most towing outfits will charge you more for towing both a truck and trailer versus just towing the truck. Also, they will factor any tolls into the final bill.

While having a truck towed is not exactly a pleasant experience, you can make it easier on yourself by not having a chip on your shoulder. LL 


Jeff Barker is an OOIDA member and a former certified diesel mechanic. He can be reached at