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 the roadway.

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.

flatbed tow truck

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.

Flatbed licensing

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 permits.

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 required;
  • 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 being carried.

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 service.

Find a reputable tow truck service with TowGator

If you’re in need of emergency towing services, look no further than TowGator for quick and affordable service. We connect motorists like you with hundreds of qualified and reputable towing companies across the United States. Start today by clicking the “GET QUOTES” tab above.