What Does a White Towel or Bag on a Broken-Down Car Mean?

Those who love their cars can’t imagine why someone would want to abandon one on the side of the road. Sometimes, the car is too old or in need of repairs that the owner can’t afford. Others may regret getting the car for other reasons, like high gas prices or difficulty parking the vehicle at their residence.

In some states, you can claim ownership of these cars if you go through the proper legal channels. So, never take an abandoned car without telling anyone, even if it’s broken down. That’s especially true for cars with white towels or shopping bags hanging from the window.

A white towel or bag means the car isn’t abandoned… yet

An abandoned car riddled with bullet holes with a white towel tied around the driver's side mirror
An abandoned car with a white towel tied around the side mirror | Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Imagine that you’re driving along the highway when the oil pressure light appears on your dashboard all of a sudden. You don’t want to keep driving and risk damaging the engine, so you pull over. If you have roadside assistance, you can call that company and tell them that your car needs to be towed.

It might take several hours until the roadside assistance workers can arrive. In the meantime, it’s dangerous to wait on the side of the highway with hundreds of drivers racing past you. You also don’t want anyone to claim your beloved vehicle or have it ticketed by police.

You search around in your car for a pen or piece of paper, but there are none to be found. However, many drivers should have no problem locating a plastic bag in their cars. According to Reddit, this is how you should indicate that your vehicle is not abandoned.

Similarly, a white towel could mean that the driver hasn’t alerted anyone about the situation. They may still be inside the vehicle with no way to contact a tow truck or police officer. However, some drivers also use towels of any color in the place of white shopping bags.

While no official law enforces this, it appears to be common knowledge for some drivers. Still, that could depend on where you live, as one Reddit user reported that they had no idea this was a thing. The Charlotte Observer discovered that this practice is also encouraged inside the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook.

Still, a towel or bag isn’t a free pass to keep your vehicle parked in a random public place forever. Cars abandoned on public roads will get towed away eventually, and you’ll be contacted by the police. In many states, the fine for leaving your vehicle on the side of the road is a few hundred dollars.

When are cars considered abandoned?

Many states give you at least a few days to collect your vehicle from the side of the road, says DirtLegal. It’s usually between 48 and 72 hours, though different counties might have shorter or longer allowances. 

In some areas of California, a vehicle is considered abandoned if it’s left in any kind of inoperable condition on the side of the road. Some states also won’t consider a car abandoned unless it’s beyond a certain age.

You might be able to claim an abandoned vehicle, but it depends on your state’s laws. First, you have to report the abandoned car so that police can open an investigation.

If the owner can’t be located or relinquishes ownership, you can potentially claim the car. Still, it’s not always easy. Some states require you to appear before a judge with valid reasons why you should own the abandoned vehicle.

If the car is abandoned on your property, that doesn’t automatically make it yours! You still have to let the authorities find the owner, as doing it yourself could be breaking the law in your state. If you spy a towel or bag wedged in the car’s window, there’s a good chance you’ll see the owner eventually.

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