Whether you’re stranded on the side of the highway with a disabled vehicle or need to have
your car towed from the parking lot for repairs, you’ll need a tow truck and a reliable
towing provider to help ensure that the car is towed safely when you need it.
There are many different types of towing vehicles commonly used by towing companies in the USA,
but perhaps the most popular vehicle is a flatbed tow truck. What are they, how do they work,
and what do you need to know before requesting a tow from a flatbed truck?
What is a flatbed tow truck?
As the name implies, a flatbed tow truck, sometimes called a breakdown truck or recovery truck in
the UK, or a “slide,” “rollback,” or “tilt tray” here in
America, is a tow truck with a flat bed for carrying vehicles from one point to another. This
means that flatbeds technically do not tow the vehicle, since the damaged vehicle sits atop the
flatbed and makes no contact with the road.
This has a number of advantages, namely that it is the only reliable way of towing vehicles that
have been completely destroyed in a collision. Furthermore, it is the only means of safely
towing vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive. This is because wheel-lift and hook & chain
tow trucks must attach to the drive wheels whilst the non-drive wheels remain in contact with
How do flatbeds work?
Most flatbeds use hydraulic systems to incline the flatbed towards the ground, after which the
vehicle can be driven up (provided it can do so) the flatbed or winched into place. The vehicle
is then secured to the flatbed, the hydraulics are reengaged into the normal position and the
car is towed away to its destination.
Since the vehicle makes no contact with the road, there is no need for the driver to remain in
the driver’s seat whilst the tow truck is in operation. On account of their ease of use,
flatbeds are ideal for speedy extrication and towing.
Flatbeds vs lift flatbed
In many parts of continental Europe, towing operators use a lift flatbed which differs from
typical flatbeds described above. They are sometimes used here in the US for forensic
extrication and in forestry. These vehicles are equipped with booms and wheel-lift frames that
allow the operator to physically lift the vehicle up off the road and onto the flatbed.
Lift flatbeds are useful when vehicles are in difficult-to-reach locations such as when parallel
parked between other adjacent vehicles. The wheel-lift frame makes the entire process of
removing the vehicle easy since the frame can be attached to the frame of the vehicle securely.
There is no contact with the road underneath, which makes lift flatbeds a safe choice in certain
situations where dragging the vehicle may be dangerous.
In the United States, licenses and permits required to legally operate a tow truck (including
flatbeds) fall under state Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. First and foremost,
check your state DOT website for guidance on obtaining the required operating licenses and
Generally, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have set the following requirements
for tow truck operators with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL):
- If the Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) of the tow truck exceeds 26,000 lbs and the
towed vehicle exceeds 10,000 lbs in Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), a Class A CDL is
- If the GVWR of the tow truck is over 26,000 lbs and is not towing a vehicle, or if the towed
vehicle weighs 10,000 lbs or less in GVWR, a Class B CDL is required.
Safety tips for flatbed trucks
If you’ve requested a flatbed tow truck service and you’re stranded on the side of
the road or highway, follow the below safety tips:
- If your vehicle is destroyed, evacuate the vehicle and wait on the carriageway shoulder for
the recovery truck.
- Follow the instructions of the towing operator, such as driving your vehicle onto the
lowered flatbed ramp.
A major advantage of flatbed towing is that many of the safety tips common with other types of
towing aren’t needed since the vehicle technically isn’t being towed but is rather
Is flatbed towing more expensive?
One downside to flatbed towing is that it may result in higher charges, especially if the vehicle
is in a hard-to-reach location such as in a ditch or parallel parked in an urban area.
Do I need a flatbed tow truck?
Generally, if your vehicle is completely inoperable and/or needs to be towed a significant
distance (e.g. over 50 miles), flatbeds are recommended both for safety and for speed of
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