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Wheel-lift

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.

Wheel lift tow truck

Wheel-lift licensing

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.

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