If you need roadside assistance after an accident or a breakdown, the tow truck, ambulance or fire department that responds could stick you with a big bill — one that your car insurance might not cover.

Strapped for cash, cities across the country have started billing motorists for the services that emergency responders provide after a crash. New York as well as 55 cities in California alone currently charge for these services. Fees vary from one city to another, but a $400 charge is not uncommon. The bill is sent to the driver, even if that person didn’t call for emergency help. Sometimes the driver is billed even if no roadside assistance is provided, like when a fire truck responds to a crash scene but doesn’t put out a fire. While drivers can submit the bill to their car insurance, many policies won’t cover the charge.

Drivers can also find themselves responsible for tow truck bills after an accident. Allstate Insurance recently warned that some tow truck drivers who stop to help drivers who haven’t requested roadside assistance may gouge motorists with excessively high towing and storage fees. These scams have increased 103 percent during the first nine months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Since the driver’s car insurance policy may not include towing as part of its coverage, the consumer can be left footing the outrageous bill, which can be triple the standard rates.

Here are three simple ways drivers can protect themselves from being taken for a ride after a breakdown or accident.

Check your car insurance policy for coverage of emergency or roadside assistance costs. Review your car insurance carefully to understand if it will cover the costs associated with an emergency responder coming to your aid or a tow truck that assists you during an accident. Research any limitations to the coverage associated with these costs. If you opt to call your agent to clarify your coverage, be sure to have him or her provide you the answer in writing or point you to the section of your policy that details the information.

Know your city and state’s polices on charging for emergency assistance. While there is no national database for city and state policies, a visit to the government website for your city, county or state should provide you the details on whether there are any charges for emergency roadside assistance and the specifics about the charges. Be aware of what the policies are for the communities you travel in regularly, including your hometown and your work location.

Get an estimate or bill that details the costs you will be charged and approve it in advance. If you are going to be charged for services, you should be aware of them in advance. Put your initials by each charge so there isn’t an opportunity for the company to add other charges after you’ve signed the estimate — a common issue in tow truck scams. When you sign at the bottom, read any fine print carefully and cross out anything you don’t approve, putting your initials next to those sections. These actions will help give you further ammunition to fight a bill if you are gouged. Ideally, only use a tow truck driver whom you have contacted yourself or whom the police have requested on your behalf.

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