First Anniversary for Mayor White's SafeClear Towing Program

Houston's SafeClear towing program is one year old and city officials say it has reduced accidents and saved money. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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Houston Mayor Bill White's SafeClear program has been at the center of controversy for more than a year. When the program started, people had to pay as much as $70 for mandatory tow services. Triple A wreckers and other services were excluded from arriving on the scene. But the mayor says a lot of adjustments have been made to improve the service.

"We revised it significantly throughout the year, improved it consistantly; expanded the Motorist Assistance Program, the MAP program done with the sheriff's department and METRO; provided more training and background checks for SafeClear operators; enhanced the capabilities at the Transtar center where the SafeClear operators were dispatched and as they say, the proof is in the pudding."

A study by professors at Rice University and Texas A&M University shows the number of freeway crashes is 10.4 percent less than the average number of crashes in 2003 and 2004. The '03-'04 average was nearly 15,000 freeway crashes and the 2005 total was just over 13,000. But Suzanne Poole, president of the Houston Professional Towing Association, says those numbers are misleading.

"The price increase in gas and a lot of people are carpooling or using mass transit which those figures are reflected in how many people are using the buses. But also the wrecker drivers with the SafeClear program no longer call out officers to minor accidents, they simply give them the blue forms to send to the state. If they don't send those forms in, those accidents aren't reported. So the actual figures are inaccurate."

Poole says there's no way to tell how many accidents were prevented by SafeClear and comparing numbers from the past two years doesn't give a complete picture of the city's freeways. Poole says the Towing Association is completely in favor of a system that clears cars more quickly and safely, she just doesn't believe SafeClear is accomplishing that. Mayor White says SafeClear will continue to undergo changes and the city will make other traffic safety adjustments as needed.

"We have a diverse and competitive number of towing companies, there's no favoritism. Somebody doesn't perform they ought to be pulled from the program, but we do not want chaos on the freeways where people are racing to the site and where you have no accountability of a tow operator in a particular segment."

The mayor says SafeClear has saved more than $35 million through prevented accidents. That number is calculated using an average total cost of $26,000 per accident and multiplying that by the number of reduced accidents in 2005. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.

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