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A tow truck (also called a wrecker, a breakdown truck, recovery vehicle or a breakdown lorry) is a truck used to move disabled, improperly parked, impounded, or otherwise indisposed motor vehicles. This may involve recovering a vehicle damaged in an accident, returning one to a drivable surface in a mishap or inclement weather, or towing or transporting one via flatbed to a repair shop or other location.
A tow truck is distinct from a motor carrier that moves multiple new or used vehicles simultaneously in routine transport operations.
The tow truck was invented in 1916 by Ernest Holmes, Sr., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a garage worker inspired after needing blocks, ropes, and six men to pull a car out of a creek. Upon improving his design he began manufacturing them commercially. The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in his home town displays restored antique wreckers, tools, equipment, and pictorial histories of the industry Holmes created.
Types of towing equipment
Five general types of tow truck are in common usage, usually based on the type or size of vehicle to be towed:
- Boom – use an adjustable boom winch to recover vehicles from a ditch, over an embankment, or any place the vehicle cannot be safely reach backing-up. Some booms are fixed, some heavy pivoting A-frames, others pneumatically powered telescoping tubes.
- Hook and chain (also known as a "sling" or "belt lift") – chains are looped around the vehicle frame or axle, which is drawn aloft by a boom winch to rest against a pair of heavy rubberized mats so the customer's vehicle can be towed on its other axle. Slings are not used much today because they can scratch the bumpers of cars. But they are sometimes used for towing vehicles that have been in an accident or have one or two of the front or rear wheels missing or for pickup trucks and other vehicles that have steel bumpers. Cars equipped with all-wheel drive cannot be towed with a sling, since it can cause problems with the car's drivetrain.
- Wheel-Lift (or spectacle lift) – evolved from the hook and chain technology to produce a large metal yoke that can be fitted under the front or rear wheels to cradle them, drawing the front or rear end of the vehicle clear of the ground by a pneumatic or hydraulic hoist so it can be towed. This apparatus generally picks up the drive wheels of the vehicle (i.e. the front wheels if it is front wheel drive, the rear wheels if it is rear wheel drive) touching only the tires. The wheel lift was designed by Frank Casteel and Felming Cannon Jr. The name spectacle lift is common in Europe; the cradle resembles a pair of squared spectacles (eyeglasses).
- Flatbed (also called a Rollback or a Slide) – the entire back of the truck is fitted with a bed that can be hydraulically inclined and moved to ground level, allowing the vehicle being towed to be placed on it under its own power or pulled by a winch.
- Integrated (also referred to as a "Self Loader" Snatcher, Quick Pick or Repo Truck) – boom and wheel-lift integrated into one unit. Used in light duty trucks to repossess vehicles or move illegally parked vehicles. Most have controls for the apparatus inside the cab of the tow truck to make quick pickup possible without the inconvenience of exiting the truck to hook up the vehicle. Heavy duty trucks are also manufactured with integrated lift.
These are the most common arrangements, but are by no means exclusive, as there are flatbed units that offer a wheel-lift, boom trucks that can recover but not tow, and wheel-lift units that offer a combination boom with sling.
Tow trucks are usually operated by private businesses, except for major highways and toll roads, where the road authority may operate the tow trucks for that stretch of road. Businesses who operate a large fleet of vehicles, such as school bus companies or package delivery services, often own one or several tow trucks for the purposes of towing their own vehicles. Government departments with large fleets (such as the police departments, fire departments, transportation authorities and departments of public works of major cities) may similarly own tow truck(s). Police department tow trucks may also be used to impound other vehicles.
The military also deploys tow trucks for recovery of stranded vehicles. In the US Army, a variant of the HEMTT truck is used for this purpose, the M984 wrecker. For recovery in combat situations while under fire, many armies with large vehicle fleets also deploy armoured recovery vehicles. These vehicles fulfill a similar role, but are resistant to heavy fire and capable of traversing rough terrain with their tracks.
In the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria there exists a Tow Truck Act, and tow trucks are identified by number plates ending in "TT". An example of a statute regulating the operation of tow trucks and the towing industry generally is the Victorian Accident Towing Services Act.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tow trucks.|
- Armored recovery vehicle
- Emergency road service
- Impounded vehicle auction
- Motor carrier
- Tow hitch
- Vehicle recovery
- International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
- Photo Gallery on Transporting and Towing Autos
- UK Vehicle Recovery History