If your car’s stuck on the side of the road and you need a tow truck right now, chances are
you haven’t got the time to be picky about what kind of tow truck arrives so long as it
does. The towing company, however, needs to know the make and model of your vehicle so that they
can send the appropriate equipment.
Wheel-lift tow trucks are among the most common types of tow truck in use in the USA today, and
for good reason. They provide excellent towing maneuverability, safety, and generally cost less
when compared to more complex towing methods.
What is a wheel-lift tow truck, how do they work, and what do you need to know about them?
What is a wheel-lift tow truck?
As the name implies, a wheel-lift tow truck is a tow truck that is equipped with a large metal
yoke which is fitted underneath the wheels of the vehicle to be towed. These tow trucks evolved
from the traditional hook & chain tow trucks that were common in the early 20th century.
Sometimes, the term ‘spectacle lift’ is used (predominantly in Europe) since the
wheel lift apparatus resembles a pair of spectacles (eyeglasses). The terms
‘underlift’ and ‘chassis lift’ are also sometimes used for medium to
heavy tow trucks that lift the axle rather than the wheels.
Wheel-lift tow trucks were first designed in 1967 by Arthur W Nelson. The technology first
patented by Nelson is now used in typical wheel-lift tow trucks, but it is also commonly used in
tandem with other types of tow truck. The apparatus can be combined with booms to make an
integrated tow truck, or with flatbeds to make lift flatbed tow trucks.
How do wheel-lift tow trucks work?
The tow truck is equipped with a metal yoke which is fitted underneath the drive wheels of the
vehicle to be towed. A pneumatic or hydraulic lift then raises the cradled wheels off the ground
and the non-drive wheels are left in contact with the road while in tow.
This means that four wheel drive vehicles may be better served with another type of tow truck
like a flatbed. Moreover, flatbeds expose the vehicle to potholes and perhaps a bumpy ride which
can damage the vehicle, particularly over long distances.
For shorter distances and for lightweight vehicles, wheel-lifts have a number of advantages such
as the ability to navigate smaller areas such as in dense urban centers or inside of parking
garages. They also tend to be cheaper to hire, although this depends largely on the towing
company and their call-out fees.
State Departments of Transportation (DOT) regulate licensing and permits required to operate a
tow truck legally, so check your state DOT website if you wish to obtain the appropriate
operating licenses and permits.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration outlines the requirements for operating a tow
truck with a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL):
- When the tow truck’s Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) is over 26,000 lbs and the
vehicle being towed is over 10,000 lbs in Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), the operator
needs a Class A CDL;
- When the tow truck’s GVWR is over 26,000 lbs and is towing a vehicle weighing 10,000
lbs or less in GVWR or is not towing any vehicle, the operator needs a Class B CDL.
Safety tips for wheel-lift trucks
If you’ve requested a towing service and are awaiting a wheel-lift tow truck, bear the
following safety tips in mind:
- Wheel-lift tow trucks may damage your vehicle, especially if it needs to be towed a long
distance. Request a flatbed if you are concerned about potential damage to the vehicle and
its transmission. Luxury and antique vehicles should be carried by flatbed only.
- Ensure that the tow truck operator is able to properly fit the wheel-lift harness to your
wheels by doing as instructed. If the harness has protective pads, there’s less chance
of damage to your wheels.
- In many states, it is illegal to tow an occupied vehicle. Law enforcement generally exercise
discretion in matters of predatory towing or illegal towing, so contact the police if your
vehicle is being illegally towed and do not put yourself in danger.
Is wheel-lift towing cheaper than flatbed towing?
It depends. Generally speaking, all other things held constant, yes, wheel-lift towing tends to
be cheaper than flatbed towing since wheel-lifts can winch and tow most cars in a matter of
minutes with minimal effort.
Find a reputable tow truck service with TowGator
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allows you to get in touch with hundreds of quality towing partners across the US. Get started
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