How Do Tow Trucks Tow Cars In Park?

Towing a vehicle that is parked and in “park” mode can seem like an impossible task. The transmission is locked in place and the wheels cannot turn freely. This safety feature is designed to prevent parked cars on inclines from drifting, but it poses unique challenges for tow truck drivers.

So how do they do it? Tow trucks use specialized equipment like wheel lift trucks and flatbed trucks to raise locked, stationary wheels off the ground. This allows them to safely tow vehicles without transmission damage. Precautions like straps, padding, and slow speeds are taken to avoid exterior damage. Advanced technologies also assist with maneuvering and monitoring parked vehicles during towing.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of towing cars in “park” and how the professionals get the job done.

Understanding Why Towing Parked Cars is Tricky

Before we dive into the towing methods, it’s important to understand what exactly makes towing parked vehicles so difficult:

  • Locked Transmission – When the car is in “park”, the transmission is completely locked in place by the parking pawl. This prevents the wheels from turning freely.
  • Stationary Wheels – With the transmission locked, the wheels cannot rotate at all. The tow truck has to be able to move stationary wheels.
  • Towing Equipment Strain – Trying to tow a locked vehicle can put immense strain on towing equipment. This could result in damage to the car or equipment.
  • Rolling Resistance – Stationary, locked wheels still have rolling resistance that resists any kind of movement. This makes getting the car moving quite difficult.

Overcoming these obstacles requires tow truck operators to use specialized techniques and gear designed specifically for towing parked vehicles.

Wheel Lift Tow Trucks

One of the most common tow truck types used for towing locked vehicles is the wheel lift truck. This specialized tow truck uses a hydraulic lift system that raises the front or rear wheels completely off the ground.

With the wheels lifted, the tow operator can tow the vehicle freely without worrying about transmission damage or resistance from stationary wheels.

The wheel lift also evenly distributes the weight of the vehicle to prevent damage to the undercarriage or bumpers.

One limitation of wheel lifts is that it can only lift two wheels at a time. So the other two wheels have to be wheeled dollies to roll freely. However, this is still an effective way to tow locked vehicles.

Flatbed Tow Trucks

Flatbed tow trucks provide the most flexibility for towing parked cars. The vehicle is loaded onto a flat, level bed and secured in place.

With all four wheels lifted off the ground, a locked transmission is no longer an issue. The tow operator can easily winch the vehicle up the ramps without resistance.

Flatbeds provide the added benefit of keeping the vehicle completely stationary during transport. This is essential for damaged vehicles or luxury cars requiring extra care.

The downside is that loading a vehicle onto the flatbed can take more time and requires enough space to maneuver. But for towing vehicles in park, flatbeds are often the ideal choice.

Using Wheel Dollies

Tow operators may also use wheel dollies or skates to move locked vehicles with only a standard tow truck. These devices lift two wheels and reduce resistance significantly:

  • Wheel Dollies – These are small wheeled platforms that can be positioned under the front or rear wheels. The dollies lift those wheels so they roll freely while the others remain grounded during towing.
  • Skates – Very similar to dollies, skates are metal plates with wheels that slide under the tires. They serve the same purpose of lifting wheels for easy rolling.

Wheel dollies provide greater maneuverability on uneven or tight surfaces compared to skates. But both devices make it possible to tow locked cars without specialized wheel lift equipment.

Key Precautions While Towing Parked Vehicles

Towing a parked vehicle requires taking extra precautions to prevent damage. Tow operators take several important steps:

  • Using soft straps and cushioned equipment to avoid scratching or marking the vehicle exterior.
  • Making sure the steering wheel is not locked so that the front wheels can roll freely.
  • Checking tow capacity ratings to ensure the truck can safely move the vehicle.
  • Communicating with the owner about any concerns or preexisting vehicle damage.
  • Securing loose vehicle components that may shift or sway during towing.
  • Taking precise measurements of vehicle dimensions to use proper clearance when lifting and towing.
  • Choosing a flat, hazard-free route to the destination.
  • Driving at slower speeds while monitoring the vehicle through the rearview mirrors.
Use soft straps and paddingUse chains or hooks directly on the chassis
Check tow capacity firstExceed rated towing capacity
Keep speed slow during transportSpeed or take sharp turns
Keep vehicle centered on flatbedLet vehicle hang off the sides

Advanced Technologies for Towing Parked Cars

Many modern tow trucks feature technology that makes towing parked vehicles even safer and easier:

  • Remote control steering – Some trucks have the ability to control steering of the towed vehicle remotely from the cab. This allows precise maneuvering in tight spaces.
  • Dolly cams – Cameras mounted on wheel dollies provide a view behind the tow truck. Drivers can monitor the lifted wheels in real time.
  • Automatic braking – If sensors detect the towed vehicle drifting or swaying, automatic braking engages to stabilize it.
  • Drive loading – Some flatbeds use an automated mechanisms to pull vehicles up onto the bed without manual winching.

While not always necessary, these tech upgrades demonstrate how much innovation has improved the towing experience for both operators and vehicle owners.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have some lingering questions about towing parked vehicles? Here are answers to some commonly asked questions:

Can a tow truck driver tow a car that’s in park?

Yes, tow trucks are specially equipped to safely tow vehicles even with the transmission in park. Wheel lift trucks and flatbeds allow tow operators to move locked vehicles.

Is it bad to tow an automatic car in park?

Not necessarily, as long as proper towing methods and equipment designed for parked vehicles are used. This prevents damage to the transmission or drivetrain.

What damage can happen from towing in park?

Without proper towing techniques, severe damage can occur to the transmission, wheels, undercarriage, and bumpers from forcing movement while parked.

How do you tow a seized transmission?

Using a wheel lift truck or flatbed is the safest way to tow a vehicle with a seized transmission. Trying to forcibly tow it any other way risks further damaging the intricate transmission components.

What tools do tow truck drivers use to unlock steering wheels?

Tow operators use lockout tools like wedge devices, long reach tools, and inflatable air wedges to unlock steering columns if necessary before towing. This prevents damage from locked wheels.


Towing a parked vehicle that is stuck in place may seem impossible to the average driver. However, professional tow truck operators have an array of specialized techniques and equipment at their disposal to safely transport locked vehicles.

By lifting the wheels off the ground with wheel lifts or flatbeds, using dollies and skates, taking proper precautions, and employing advanced technologies, tow truck drivers can seamlessly tow cars that are parked with the transmission in gear. With the proper training and right tools for the job, towing operators can move vehicles in any situation.

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