There's an element of speculation in at least one not atypical arrangement, as wrecker drivers will bargain with storage lot owners on the fee they're reimbursed for a tow. Though a car owner can be charged only $57 for a police-authorized tow when he retrieves his vehicle from a storage lot, in addition to the tow fee he can be assessed a storage fee of $11 per day. Some lot owners will gamble that a stored car won't be picked up immediately -- especially newer model cars that owners may allow to sit for days while awaiting inspection by an insurance adjuster -- and they'll agree to pay a wrecker driver more than $57 in hopes of recouping the overpayment and more in storage fees.

Critics say the city's supervision of the wrecker business is dominated by ex-police officers and ex-wrecker drivers, resulting in a too cozy relationship between the regulated and the regulators. But Ken Ulmer, the president of the Houston Auto Wreckers Association, which represents a large number of the 105 people who hold the city's 236 E-tags, says the current level of regulation -- wreckers by the city, storage lots by the Texas Railroad Commission -- works to the advantage of consumers in distress.

"We try to keep reputable business owners in business, and we try to get rid of the non-reputable people," says Ulmer, who holds four E-tags and operates a storage lot. "There are some [disreputable operators], sure, but in any industry there are. And most people know who they are, but it's people in the industry who know who they are -- it's not the consumer. A consumer is going to be totally unaware of what's happening, and nine times out ten they're in shock anyway, from the accident."

And if Houston drivers think the wrecker situation is a problem now, wrecker drivers and some city officials warn that a federal trucking deregulation law that went into effect last year could make things even worse if it results in deregulation of the local industry, ending the exclusive franchise enjoyed by holders of E-tags.

"Deregulation could create chaos in the streets," predicts City Councilman Al Calloway, who chairs one of the council's transportation committees. "You'd literally be encouraging fighting over tows, while we thought what we were doing in the past was trying to prevent some of that from happening."

Promila Kohli doesn't remember much about what happened immediately after her accident on Clarewood. According to documents in her lawsuit, her car was towed by a wrecker affiliated with Collision Repair Specialists, or CRS, to the company's shop on Beverly Hill. At the time, Kohli had never heard of CRS, but more than two years later her eyes narrow and her voice takes on a bitter edge at the mere mention of its name.

A native of India and a citizen of Canada, Kohli had been in Houston for only a year when she had her wreck -- her first, she says, in 20 years of driving. She claims that when she found her car at CRS two or three days after her accident, a worker there suggested her insurance deductible of $500 would be waived if she let CRS do the repairs. (The CRS employee has denied making the suggestion.) Kohli says she wanted to take the car to the dealer for repairs, but CRS had already removed a door, so she decided to leave the car where it was. A check from her insurer to cover the estimated cost of the repairs -- about $9,000 -- was shortly dispatched to CRS. Kohli was promised her car back in about a month.

But months passed and the car remained at CRS. More than once, Kohli was told that replacement parts had not arrived but would be ready soon. More months passed. Kohli was confused and frustrated, but unsure of what she should do.

"My hands were tied," she says. "And I don't know the law here." Finally, eight months after her car was towed to CRS, she consulted a lawyer.

CRS owner Wesley Spence, a former Houston policeman whose wife is currently a police officer, has denied his shop was negligent or at fault in keeping Kohli's car for so long.

"It sat here for six months because it was the first year they came out with that new style Mazda 626, that bubble-looking style," he says. "The right back door was hit, and there was no new door anywhere, at any dealership in Texas or the nation. We got receipts to verify everything, that it was a nationwide back order on this. No dealership had one. We covered our rear end on this."

During the wait, Kohli continued to pay the $385 monthly note on her $24,000 car, as well as other related expenses. She says in her lawsuit against CRS that the company promised to pay the cost of a rental car and didn't. (CRS has denied making that promise.)

"I am mad at them, because I'm paying the insurance, I'm paying the car payment, I'm paying [for a rental car]," Kohli says. "On top of it, I had to pay the lawyer fee. I'm going through hell, you know."

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