Mobile Video Systems -Why Towing Companies Are Adopting Them

If you were to look up the word ‘risk’ in the dictionary, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to see a picture of a tow truck in the middle of a freeway pileup. There are few industries where risk comes more guaranteed with the job:

Is Your Tow Fleet Often At Risk?

  • Are your drivers busiest during extreme weather events?
  • Do they often work in poor visibility and dangerous road conditions?
  • Do a high percentage of your tow’s occur in heavy high traffic? 
  • Do your drivers sometimes subjected to angry motorists?
  • Are your drivers going too fast or following too close under heavy load?

The towing industry is under pressure, as owners face increasing regulation and rising costs, at the same time as they are subjected to downward price pressure for the services they provide:

An Industry Under Pressure

  • Reductions in available insurance carriers 
  • Rapidly increasing insurance costs
  • Reduced pool of available drivers due to competition
  • Rising labor and fuel costs 
  • Increased price pressure and narrowing margins

These industry trends prompted Agero to create a white paper that examines the economic challenges impacting the North American towing industry and to start a conversation as a means to finding industry solutions.

The study showed that one of the key components of these cost increases is insurance, which typically accounts for over 20% of fleet operating costs. In an article written by the Insurance Journal, Chip Thompson, president and CEO of American Transportation Insurance Group (ATIG), said “he has never seen the insurance market for tow trucks this bad since opening the doors of his specialty agency in 2001.” 

He explains “The insurance market is so difficult for tow trucks, that some are forced to close shop. We are losing one out of every four customers and we are not losing them to other agents. They are shutting down,” he said.

The biggest shock wave hit the industry in September 2016 when Progressive pulled the plug on the towing sector nationwide, Thompson said. “That was the bellwether for everything else that followed after that,” he said. “In the last 18 months, we’ve lost eight to nine carriers in this space and it’s a small field anyway. “The current state of the market for tow trucks has been hit very hard and very fast… normally I would think there would be 20 percent or 30 percent increases. (in difficult times) We are seeing 100 percent to 150 percent increases on accounts with no claims.”

Towing operations are becoming uninsurable, as willing insurance carriers are becoming a rarity. Mr Thompson explains, “The only thing operators can do is manage their risk.

Think You Are Not At Risk? Read This.

According to the Agero study, another major challenge to the industry is attracting, training and retaining drivers, which is becoming increasingly difficult due to new competition from the likes of Uber, Lyft and Amazon Prime. This results in burgeoning labor costs, which now make up over 40% of tow provider costs. At the same time, the constant slate of new drivers increases training costs for the new hires and contributes to the industry’s high claims rate.

“Drivers are going too fast and are distracted,” Thompson said. “When you are driving a heavy commercial vehicle, like a tow truck, and you hit a car with three or four people in it, all of those people have neck and back injuries, you total their car, you will have $30,000 worth of damage to your tow truck, and it’s just a rear-end collision, which theoretically is preventable.”

Add 20% year-over-year fuel cost increases over the past 3 years, on top of increased truck maintenance costs from rising parts and labor and it’s easy to see why the industry is enduring widespread pain on operating costs.

For the towing industry however, rising operating costs are only part of the story. Liability risks extend beyond how a tow company’s own drivers are behaving behind the wheel. There are many other areas of exposure, ranging from damage caused during the tow/impound process to third party liability and fraudulent damage claims. A quick Google search produces a sample stream of scenarios that can unfold on tow fleet owners, driving up their liability risks and costs:

Towing companies are faced with protecting the safety of their drivers and the public at large, while minimizing their risks, liability and operating costs. This is a heavy load to pull.

A Solution That Helps Towers Stay Ahead of the Curve

Recent advancements in technology are helping towers combat these trends, leading to improved safety and reductions in claims, liability and operating expenses. These improvements are being achieved as a result of implementing mobile video systems into tow vehicles with immediate and measurable results. While mobile video systems can take different shapes and approaches, they generally combine vehicle telematics and surveillance technologies to give fleet operators much greater operational awareness of their field resources.

Successful tow companies have long been frontrunners in the adoption of new technologies as a means of optimizing safety and efficiency. Most long-surviving tow fleets have been utilizing modern dispatch systems and GPS tracking systems for many years to help maximize their resources and to protect their drivers.  Replacing existing GPS tracking systems with mobile video systems is allowing towing fleets to kill two birds with one stone, getting much more bang for the buck. Mobile video is a key weapon in the fight against high operating costs, excessive liability and risk. 

Mr. Thompson explains, “I’ve got guys that are now putting cameras inside the trucks facing both outward and inward and if they catch their drivers eating or talking on the phone or texting, there is zero tolerance. They are fired,” he said. “For tow trucks, it’s rear-end collisions that are “bringing insurance companies to their knees,” Thompson said.

Video Telematics Systems are available in different levels of sophistication, ranging from low-cost consumer dash cams, to industrial-grade connected dash cams, to multi-camera DVR’s. (digital video recorders) VTS systems are also available with on-board AI technology (Artificial Intelligence) that is able detect real-time driver behaviors, as a means of enhancing driver safety.

How do Mobile Video Systems Work?

A mobile video system incorporates one or more cameras and a storage medium that records the activity from the camera(s) anytime the vehicle is in use. At the simplest level, mobile video (VTS) systems can provide proof of what actually occurred on the ground during any situation, 100% of the time the vehicle is active. It is important to understand that mobile video systems do not need to incur monthly costs or be connected to a wireless data service in order to provide this capability. Always-on, in this discussion, does not mean always-connected. It simply means that it’s always recording 100% of the video, audio and other related information, from all of its cameras, the entire time the vehicle is in use. 

It is also important to distinguish the difference between a harsh event recorder and an always-on video telematics device. Often, with consumer grade and even some commercial systems, such as the Verizon Connect system, not all vehicle activity is captured, as these systems are designed to capture pre-defined events only, such as harsh driving or a crash. According to Verizon Connect’s FAQ section on their website, “Dash cam footage of driving events is available for download for 90 days from the day of the incident.” This is another way of saying, “Video evidence is not available unless it was triggered by a driving event: harsh braking, rapid acceleration or hard cornering.”  In the towing industry, the majority of situations where video evidence is important are not related to harsh driving or other trigger-based events. Therefore, event-only based video devices provide limited value in comparison than always-on mobile video systems. Event-only based video devices presumably forgo always-on storage capability in order to reduce costs. In actual fact however, always-on (as in always recording) VTS systems are available, at even less cost and therefore provide superior value.

When an incident arises, an owner or manager can review the video history that is stored on the vehicle in question. Usually, even in a basic system without any live connectivity, the video is stored along with an historical timeline of GPS location information, as well as speed and PTO activity. Therefore, when reviewing an incident, one can see where this occurred on a map, what speed the vehicle was moving at, whether the PTO was on or off and so on, as they watch the video. One can also hear what was happening at the time, from microphones built into the cameras. 

This other information adds context to the historical review to give a clear picture of what occurred. Again, a mobile video system does not have any monthly plan associated with it to provide this context rich information.

Often, half the battle is just knowing the facts. As Mr. Ryan McGann, of McGann & Chester Towing, of Pittsburgh, PA explains, “We see an enormous benefit to having a mobile video system installed in our fleet. Having multi-camera DVR systems in our trucks has virtually eliminated fraudulent damage claims. In addition to this, it has increased our operators attentiveness, while also protecting them. One of our biggest concerns when adopting the system was our drivers push back. Instead the opposite is true. Our drivers love them!”

Ryan explains: “Whether it’s verifying that facia damage was actually caused by one of our rollbacks or fending off potential claims, it’s refreshing to know what really happened. If we did something wrong, we’d rather know for sure, to reduce the chances of recurrence and if we didn’t, then the system gives us indisputable proof. If we have a bad driver, it’s better to know right away.”

Ms. Jan Deferari, of Jan’s Medacar Towing in New York concurs: “Our video system protects our drivers in several ways and as a result, they are safer. For example, if a driver is getting an earful from a customer, then as soon as the driver advises the customer they are being recorded on video cameras, their entire demeanor usually softens.”

Be An Educated Mobile Video System Buyer

At this time, there is no real consensus within the towing community as to the most appropriate mobile video system configuration. Some fleets purchase simple dash cams while others install multi-camera DVR systems. However, the determination of this typically commences with answering these 2 fundamental questions:

  1. How many cameras are required?
  2. What length of video history (how many days) should be stored?
  1. How Many Cameras Are Required?

The very first question leads us to a big fork in the road, with dash cam systems down one fork and MDVR’s (Mobile Video Device Recorders) down the other. Generalizing, dash cam systems are lower cost and typically easier to install, while MDVR systems can accommodate more cameras and longer historical storage capacity. The trade-offs are substantial, this first question is worthy of careful consideration.

Let’s review the camera options briefly. On a tow vehicle, potential camera positions would include forward facing, driver-facing, side-view and rear-facing locations.

The forward-facing camera is of course a given, but what about driver-facing cameras? Many owners choose not to have them for fear of upsetting their drivers. Others may be cautioned by their legal people that a driver-facing camera may implicate a driver in some situations.

FQ Wireless founder, Gord Walsh points out, “While we may not have complete consensus on the merits of having driver-facing cameras in tow vehicles, we do recommend that when choosing a system to purchase, it may be prudent to have that available as a future add-on capability. As discussed in our previous post, having a driver-facing camera is like putting your driver’s grandmother in his truck beside him. Its likely he is going to drive much more carefully!”

Mr. Walsh notes, “It is understandable that tow company owners may have concerns about protecting their driver’s privacy and showing that they are trusted. However, systems are now available that can take a driver-facing camera a step further, with the potential of saving your driver’s life.” The new technology combines on-board artificial intelligence (AI) with a DSM (Driver Safety Monitoring) camera that is able to detect when the driver is losing focus, falling asleep, talking on a cellphone or smoking. “This puts a new twist on the question of driver trust or privacy”, Walsh explains, because it’s really the driver that can benefit from the technology.”

Brown and Brown Insurance, of Bethlehem, PA, is one of the largest insurance brokers in the world, with a market cap of over $11 Billion. Don Blood, a 30 year veteran for Brown & Brown, specializes in providing insurance to the towing industry and has been witness to countless tow fleet claims.  With regard to the driver-facing camera, Don explains, “If you’re in front of a judge in a liability trial, it can come down to whether the towing company did absolutely everything they could to protect their liability. Not having a camera on the driver may show that you didn’t take all possible steps to do so.” 

Is a dash cam really sufficient for a towing operator? Some fleets are opting for single forward-facing dash cams on their trucks. Consider that this may be akin to trying to broadcast an NFL game from your iPhone! It’s going to give you less than half the picture and in the end, will likely lead to purchasing another system in the future. This is probably not the kind of purchase you want to make twice in a short period of time.

With most products, choosing a dash cam system rules out any chance of adding side cameras.  “There have been situations that have occurred,” Mr. Blood explains, “where a distracted pedestrian unknowingly walks right into the side of a tow vehicle, resulting in a death or serious injury. In these types of situations, which are becoming more common due to cell phones, side-facing cameras would have likely exonerated the drivers in question.” He notes: “These kinds of claims can be very substantial and quite damaging to a tow company.” 

Ryan McGann of McGann & Chester Towing in Pittsburgh, PA agrees, “We have situations occurring almost daily, where our side cameras pick up important information, such as video and audio of verbal abuse or threats to our drivers, proof of incidental or willful damage and so on…”, says Ryan McGann. “They also come into play all the time at training events, where we use video review for driver training,” he notes. 

Jan’s Medacar, of Scotia, NY commenced with front, side and rear facing cameras, but they chose a system that can handle up to 8 cameras. 

Looking back, Jan notes that she’s pleased to have chosen a system with expansion capability: We’ve recently added a second rear-facing camera to each system, that is looking out over our rollbacks, to compliment the rear-facing cameras we already had at the very back of the trucks. This gives us a rear-facing view of everything on the truck and an additional perspective from a higher vantage point. The reality is that the cameras make up a small part of the overall cost of the system, so why not capture a complete picture of what’s going on?”

  1. How much history is required?

The second fundamental question when choosing a video telematics system, is how many days of history should the system store? 

Why does stored video history matter? Simply because many incidents require review well after they actually occurred. This is especially true in the towing industry, where disputes often come to light 2 to 4 weeks after the fact. For example, when an owner re-claims their vehicle from your lot, 3 weeks after it was towed, and accuses your company of damaging it during the initial tow. As Ms. Deferari points out, “We installed the rear-facing cameras at the back of our rollbacks, not only to help the drivers back-up more safely, but to prove out fascia false damage claims, which are all too common.

Stored video can also be invaluable for training purposes. You’re usually not aware until well after the fact, when an incident that played out can become useful for training purposes. Perhaps everything went perfectly or perhaps nothing went well at all. In either case, it can be incredibly useful to use these live situations to conduct a post mortem or to help others learn from your mistakes or accomplishments. In the heat of the moment and even after the moment, you may not think or take the time to grab the footage of those incidents. It may be too busy with all the daily chaos going on. But a few days later, during a quiet moment of reflection, you realize the value that could come out of a scenario. The longer your stored history is, the greater the benefits the system will provide.

Once again, the amount of required history can determine the difference between a dash cam and an MDVR being required for the job. It’s a simple math formula: Number of cameras x quality level x Number of hours storage = xx GB. A single 1080p HD camera can use up 3600 Mb per hour. At that rate, many popular dash cams, such as the Samsara dash cam, only provide about 40 hours of history. That’s only 4 days, assuming the trucks are on the road for an average of 10 hours per day. An effectively designed system for towing requires at least 2 weeks of history, if not longer. 

Mobile Video Telematics System Considerations

When choosing and designing a system for your tow fleet, there are a number of factors that are important to consider, such as:

  • Number of cameras now and future potential 
  • Camera types and mounting considerations
  • Resolution of each camera and the system
  • Storage capacity -how many days of on-board history?
  • Type of storage medium -Hard drive, SSD drive, SD Cards
  • On board GPS, accelerometer, input monitoring
  • In-Vehicle Display
  • On-board 4G connectivity for live viewing, tracking
  • Data plan requirements
  • WiFi downloading capability
  • ADAS (Automated Driver Assistance) AI technology
  • DSM (Driver Safety Monitoring) AI technology

Summary

Mobile video technology is being rapidly adopted by the towing industry as an important tool to help control operating costs and liability. These systems are providing substantial gains in driver and public safety at the same time and providing exceptional return on investments for the industry. Benefits provided by mobile video solutions:

  • Improved driver safety from improved awareness & supervision
  • Improved job performance, resulting from video training of actual events
  • Reduced fraudulent damage claims due to on hand video evidence
  • Reduced insurance claims through reduced risky behavior
  • Reduced insurance costs from lower claim history
  • Reduced liability through scenario reconstruction
  • Increase efficiency & customer service through quicker response & less errors

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