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Whitmire Bill Would Prohibit Houston's 'Safe Clear' Program

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

The State Legislature is trumping the City of Houston.

A delegation of Houston area legislators today held a press conference to announce the filing of legislation that will prohibit cities from removing disabled vehicles from a freeway without the consent of the owner or operator of the vehicle.

The legislation is aimed at the City of Houston's recently instituted "Safe Clear" program. That program allows vehicles on Houston freeways to be towed if left more than six minutes.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), author of SB 340, said that while he commends the city for addressing public mobility he questions the safety of motorists when their vehicles are subject to mandatory towing.

Whitmire called the plan "unworkable," and also said the city should not be allowed to "lease out" sections of state highways for $50,000 "for exclusive rights of certain tow truck operators."

The plan not only creates hardships on motorists, he said, but also is not a safe program for motorists. He urged the city to look to Harris County's Motor Assistance Program as a way to address motor vehicle problems on the freeways.

The Houston Democrat said he already has signatures of 29 members of the Senate in support of his legislation, including the chairs of the committees to which the legislation might be referred. That, he said, is a sufficient number to bring the bill up and pass it. "And we plan to do that very quickly," he said.

"This is not just my legislation," said Whitmire, who described it as legislation by a delegation, with overwhelming support from all of the state senators except Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). "It is not a partisan issue," said Whitmire. "It is not a one-side-of-town issue."

Whitmire cited a number of stories from his constituents regarding the problems with the program. "Maybe the goal was meritorious," he said, adding that the actual day-to-day life stories show it won't work.

He said the delegation urges the City of Houston to end the program, "or we're going to end it for them."

Rep. Robert Talton (R-Pasadena) said the program has been very controversial, and that it was implemented "without any input from many of the folks within the industry." That, he said, "was a mistake."

The city recently "tweaked" their program, said Whitmire, but that does not address the fact that dozens of the tow truck drivers have criminal records, with 32 having been arrested for violent offenses, five are on parole and one is on probation. "That is unacceptable," he said.

Six minutes is not enough time for motorists to have a disabled vehicle removed on their own, said Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). "It is punitive," she said of the Safe Clear program. "These are citizens who helped pay to build these freeways. If Harris County can have a program to assist their citizens, surely the city of Houston can do the same."

Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston) said there was not enough citizen input prior to implementation of the program. She said tow truck drivers were not given an opportunity to discuss their concerns regarding the program. She added that the safety of citizens should always be considered, adding, "This program is not doing that."

"This is not just a Houston issue," said Whitmire. "These are freeways traveled by citizens from throughout the state on state highways." He said before anyone else starts thinking about leasing out sections of highway for a large amount of money or exclusive rights to tow, this program needs to be stopped.

Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) said the program could set a precedent with cities using state property. "We may be winding up with counties taking over state parks or something."

Whitmire said when he talked to city officials regarding the criminal backgrounds of some of the tow truck drivers, he was told none were sex offenders of violent offenders.

"I was certainly deceived or misled, at a minimum," he said.