Instant tow

Instant tow is the immediate dispatch of a tow truck to an incident scene or location of a vehicle or debris blocking a lane so that disabled vehicles can be cleared quickly.

Key characteristics





WSDOT regions

Other names

  • Staged towing
  • Dry run towing

Strategy description

The purpose of instant tow is to dispatch a tow truck simultaneously with incident responders to reduce the time it takes to clear an incident. Clearing lanes quicker reduces traffic delays and secondary collisions caused by the original incident. As stated in the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC) Benefits Summary, “For every minute that a freeway travel lane is blocked during a peak period, four minutes of travel delay results after the incident is clear”(1).

Towing companies are an essential part of the traffic incident management team because they help reopen lanes quickly by removing disabled vehicles from an incident scene. Traditionally, first responders arrived at the incident scene, determined that a vehicle needs towing, and then requested a tow truck. That process delays the time it takes to clear the roadway, which increases travel delay and the potential for another collision to occur in the stop-and-go traffic.

Instant tow contracts typically fall under two types, staged or dry run:

  • Staged towing contracts station a tow truck at a specific geographic location where congestion and collisions occur frequently. If a collision occurs, the tow truck can respond immediately to clear the lane.
  • In dry run towing contracts, the tow truck is dispatched simultaneously with the first responders. If a disabled vehicle needs towing, then the tow truck can clear the vehicle immediately. If no vehicle requires towing, then the department of transportation pays the towing company for the “dry run”.

Instant Tow programs can address both safety and budgetary concerns. For example,  “The SafeClear instant towing program in Houston, TX cleared almost 90 percent of incidents in under 6 minutes in 2008. This program is attributed with a reduction of approximately 1,400 incidents per year, saving $49 million annually”(2).

When to use this strategy

Instant Tow programs have are useful for busy roadways where collisions can negatively impact congestion.

Instant tow makes sense for:

  • Highways with frequent collisions during peak congested periods.
  • Busy highways where any disabled vehicle significantly impacts congestion.

Strategy benefits:

  • Reduces the duration of freeway congestion resulting from incidents and collisions.
  • Reduces secondary collisions that occur in the congested traffic caused by an initial collision.

What you need in order to implement

Policy needs:

  • Requires contracts with participating towing companies that require legal approval.

Planning needs:

  • Plan instant tow as part of the overall traffic incident management program.
  • Plan the tow truck call-out protocol to ensure the process occurs consistently. It may be necessary to consider a rotation between several private towing companies.

Coordination needs:

  • Coordination between the department of transportation and private towing companies is needed to enter into a towing contract. 

Agency resources needs:

  • A traffic incident management program and incident responders to coordinate and dispatch private towing companies.

Learn more about this strategy

Washington State Department of Transportation, Evaluation of the Instant Tow Dispatch Pilot Program in the Tacoma Area (PDF).

Federal Highway Administration, Emergency Transportation Operations, Traffic Incident Management.

Works cited: 

(1) National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC) Benefits Summary.

(2) SafeClear Performance Report, 2008 (PDF).


About key characteristics

Location notes:

Instant tow is used in congested corridors during peak time periods.

Cost notes:

The cost of implementing instant tow is low since it only requires a towing contract and paying for “dry runs” when the tow truck arrives on the scene and no vehicle needs to be cleared.

Technology notes:

No specific technology is needed.

Collaboration notes:

Requires collaboration with private towing companies and first responders.

Need or issue this strategy addresses