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Abandoned Vehicles

Guide No. 53 (2008)

by Mike Maxfield

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The Problem of Abandoned Vehicles

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of abandoned vehicles and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local abandoned-vehicle problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Abandoned vehicles fall within larger sets of problems involving motor vehicle regulation, social disorder, and the illegal disposal of bulky, hazardous waste. Abandoned vehicles are often unregistered and may have defaced identification numbers. Abandoned vehicles attract vandals, may be used for drug drops or prostitution, accumulate refuse, and may be used as shelters by the homeless. Some motor vehicle parts contain hazardous substances, in addition to gasoline and other fluids, that must be properly disposed of.. Old vans and truck trailers may be filled with trash or hazardous waste, then left on roadsides. Individual cars dumped on city streets may contain car parts or other junk.

This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by abandoned and other types of derelict vehicles. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

(Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see http://www.popcenter.org.)

At the same time, it is useful to recognize that these and other problems may either contribute to or be side effects stemming from abandoned vehicles.

General Description of the Problem

The term "abandoned vehicle" is often applied loosely to different types of nuisance vehicles. The latter include dilapidated cars that still bear license plates but appear unsafe, vehicles that emit noxious smoke, cars that are being repaired on public streets, and inoperable vehicles that are on private property. Drivers may temporarily abandon cars that break down on highways as they arrange for repairs. This is different from a junk car dumped and permanently abandoned.

The terms "derelict vehicles" or "junk cars" refer to inoperable cars and trucks intentionally kept on private property. The owner may keep a derelict vehicle for spare parts, or intend to repair it some day. Police responsibility for derelict vehicles can vary. In many jurisdictions, special code enforcement departments monitor and sanction junk cars and trucks owners keep on private property. Abandoned vehicles most commonly become police problems when left on public property, or on private property without an owner's consent.

There are no national estimates of the numbers of abandoned vehicles in the United States. In England, estimates range from about 200,000 to 300,000 annually for the years 2000 through 2004.1 Among U.S. cities, Seattle police received about 4,200 reports each month in 2002,2 the New York City Sanitation Department picked up over 9,200 vehicles in 2006,3 while Philadelphia police towed over 32,000 abandoned cars in a 40-day period in 2000.4 One year after Michigan implemented a statewide data system for tracking towed vehicles, over 92,000 abandoned vehicles were removed.5

It is difficult to produce reliable estimates, partly because of different approaches to counting. Cars reported and cars towed are common measures. But each of these is affected by concerted cleanup and publicity campaigns, together with changes in how people can report suspected vehicles. Changes in definitions or rules about when a vehicle can be assumed to be abandoned also play a role in counting. For example, the New York City Sanitation Department reports separate numbers for vehicles tagged as abandoned, and those actually collected.

The following factors are usually considered in classifying a vehicle as abandoned:

  • Condition, appearance. Body damage, missing or flat tires, missing doors or other major parts, broken windshields or windows, garbage or other debris inside the vehicle, evidence of fire damage, signs of vandalism, trash accumulating around the vehicle.
  • Missing or outdated license plates and other documentation (inspection stickers, local registration decals).
  • Location (parked on public streets or other public property). Property owners or managers usually must report cars abandoned on private property without the owner's consent.
  • Length of time at location. This can vary from a very short period for highways or limited- access roads, to longer periods in parking facilities, to somewhere in between for street parking.
  • Notification, nonresponse. Most jurisdictions require that stickers or some other warning be applied to cars or sent to registered owners before they can move a vehicle. If the owner does not respond within a specified time frame, the vehicle can be towed.

Abandoned vehicles are problems in a variety of areas, ranging from sparsely inhabited tribal lands, through rural areas, to large cities.6 Even within cities, people may dump cars around industrial wastelands (brownfields), in large parking lots, along train or highway buffer lands, in vacant lots, on city streets, in remote parks, or even in cemeteries.7 People abandon different types of vehicles for different reasons. Those discarded in less populated areas are usually older cars and trucks of little value. Abandoned vehicles in urban areas may also include stolen cars. Among these will be autos that are intact, partly stripped, or burned-out.

Some places have certain features that produce unusual types of problems. For example, people dump a lot of vehicles in Boston's Logan Airport parking garage.8 Because it's common for owners to leave cars at airports for extended periods, distinguishing abandoned cars from the thousands parked in large facilities can take weeks. Airport parking facilities may attract abandoned vehicles as people drive to the airport before moving to another region or country.9 The problem may be particularly acute in Boston, where students at the many colleges and universities in the area dump the old cars that served as city transportation.

Remote resort areas such as Key West, Fla., and Martha's Vineyard, Mass., attract old cars that people use as short-distance island transportation. But the junkers eventually age beyond repair and are abandoned. The problem is compounded by the added cost of removing junk cars from remote locations. Key West and other low-lying islands in the Florida Keys are further burdened when hurricanes or tropical storms damage many cars.10

Interestingly, this variation is not restricted to expensive vacation sites. The related problem of "disposable transportation" has been identified in some depressed urban areas in the United States and England. People use older cars, usually unregistered, for short-distance transportation in urban neighborhoods. The cars eventually break down and are left where they fall. Termed "invisible cars" by England's Lancashire police, they may be informally shared as a type of communal transportation, and used in drug sales or other offenses.11 Disposable cars have been cited as particular problems by police in Philadelphia12 and Washington, D.C.13

Derelict or inoperable vehicles are also found on private property, with or without the property owner's consent. In the latter case, people may dump cars in parking lots or on vacant land. Complaints about junk cars on private property may be more common in formerly rural areas that attract development as cities expand.14 The sensibilities of outward-moving people clash with those of existing residents who view old cars as sources of cheap spare parts, not as junk.

As these examples suggest, abandoned vehicles are not always police problems. Depending on local ordinances, junk vehicles on private property may be treated as code violations. Similarly, dealing with vehicles abandoned in parking lots or on other private property may technically be the property owners' responsibility. It usually becomes a police problem when vehicles are abandoned or appear to be abandoned on streets or other public property.

Harms Caused by Abandoned Vehicles

Abandoned vehicles may be viewed as a quality-of-life problem; they are unsightly, and they symbolize and contribute to signs of disorder and decay. Wilson and Kelling15 argue that broken windows—either literal broken windows of vehicles and buildings or figurative "broken windows" of all sorts of physical and behavioral disorder—invite further disorder and crime. Years before that article was published, Philip Zimbardo16 described how damaged vehicles parked on city streets in New York and California attracted additional damage in the form of literal broken windows, other vandalism, and parts-stripping. In the same way, abandoned derelict vehicles can undermine the quality of life while potentially contributing to further problems:

  • attracting children,
  • containing gasoline and other dangerous fluids,
  • attracting further damage and parts-stripping,
  • becoming targets for arson,
  • being used by the homeless or street prostitutes,
  • being used for drug drops,
  • occupying scarce parking spaces in urban areas, and
  • obstructing street-cleaning.
Abandoned vehicles may be viewed as a quality of life issue because they are unsightly and contribute to signs of disorder and decay.

Abandoned vehicles may be viewed as a quality of life issue because they are unsightly and contribute to signs of disorder and decay. Photo credit: Michael Maxfield

Additional problems accompany vehicles abandoned in rural areas, abandoned lots, or wastelands. Once a single car is dumped in a vacant lot or on an access road, it can attract other abandoned vehicles and illegal dumping, turning the area into a de facto junkyard.17 People often dump cars in remote wetlands in places like Florida, where they can contaminate water and obstruct storm drains.18 Removing junk vehicles from wetlands and other hard-to-reach locations can be more difficult than collecting them from city streets.

Once a single car is dumped in a vacant lot it can attract other abandoned vehicles and illegal dumping.

Once a single car is dumped in a vacant lot it can attract other abandoned vehicles and illegal dumping. Photo credit: Michael Maxfield

Although cars have unique identifying numbers and must be registered with state and sometimes local agencies, keeping track of them and their owners can be difficult. This is especially true for older vehicles that may be sold and not registered by their new owner, intended for use as spare parts, not transportation. Older cars may be unregistered, while an owner plans to restore the vehicle to working order some day. If cars are subsequently abandoned, a search of the vehicle identification number (VIN) may produce information on the former owner. In a more general sense, vehicle registration and licensing systems have been identified as weak links in documenting car ownership.19 Most state agencies and systems were organized when the number of registered vehicles was much lower than it is today.

Dealing with a lot of abandoned vehicles can be costly and time-consuming. Once suspected cars are reported, they are usually tagged, and efforts are launched to identify the owner. Some time must elapse between when police can flag a vehicle as abandoned and when they can have it removed. Then the police store the vehicle for a time before its ultimate disposition, while efforts to identify a registered owner continue. If people have deposited garbage or hazardous waste in abandoned vehicles, there can be additional costs of safe removal of the debris before police can have a car impounded. Leaking fluids or vehicle arson can produce additional cleanup costs.

Factors Contributing to Abandoned Vehicles

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses. In general, two factors contribute to the problem: the cost of operating and disposing of vehicles, and the side effects of vehicle regulation and licensing procedures.

Cost of Operating and Disposing of Vehicles

Value of scrap metal. A steady decline in the value of scrap metal salvaged from junk cars and trucks was recognized as an important reason for increased abandoned vehicles in England20 and Scotland.21 If scrap metal companies pay less for each junk vehicle, profits are reduced for towing and auto-salvage operations.22 This can increase the cost to those who seek to have a junk car towed away. It can also force auto salvage businesses to close, reducing the capacity to dispose of abandoned vehicles.

On the other hand, there is at least one anecdotal report of how increases in the value of scrap metal may have caused scavenging junk dealers to collect vehicles tagged as abandoned in New York.23 It also appears that the value of scrap metal in the form of "auto bundles" (bulk crushed cars) has increased in global markets, more than doubling from 2001 to late 2007.24 Higher prices seem to have been accompanied by growth in the number of U.S. businesses offering to tow junk cars for free. This offers opportunities for responses to the problem (see below).

Cost and convenience of legitimate disposal. When Boston banned disposal of cathode ray televisions and computer monitors in city garbage collection, the illegal dumping of these items increased.25 In a similar fashion, when the costs of legitimate disposal increase, people are more likely to abandon junk vehicles.

Less populated places such astribal lands26 or rural areas27 often lack convenient access to scrap- vehicle operations. Or the distance to a scrap yard may add to the cost of having towing companies collect vehicles. Urban areas may have more ready access to scrap businesses, but people may opt to dump a car if they must pay for towing and legitimate disposal. Such incentives are stronger for low-income owners of low-value cars that are more likely to be scrapped.

Cost of repair and insurance.Owners may nurse older cars along for several years, but eventually the repair costs will exceed the vehicle's value. This applies to mechanical repairs and serious body damage. Owners of older cars less often buy collision or comprehensive insurance, and may opt to junk rather than repair a damaged vehicle.

Cost of safety and emissions compliance. Increasingly stringent auto safety and emissions standards add to the cost of legitimate operation. Such costs may be unanticipated results from required inspections, and beyond owners' ability to pay. The purpose for such standards is to require basic repairs that owners might not otherwise make. Financially strapped owners of older cars may abandon them as a result. The European Union is phasing in the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive (ELVD), which sets standards on the disposal of end-of-life vehicles. It is generally believed that the ELVD will at least initially increase the number of vehicles illegally dumped.28 An organization concerned with the quality of life in urban neighborhoods claims that abandoned vehicles increased in Boston following more stringent emission inspection standards in Massachusetts.29

Low-quality and "orphaned" vehicles. Cars that are poorly built and mechanically unreliable quickly lose value in used-car markets. As a result, they may be more affordable to lower-income people who nonetheless require transportation. Such cars are more likely to break down and become increasing costly to repair. So-called "orphaned cars" are those built for only a few years, often because they were poorly built and attracted few buyers. Low-quality cars orphaned by their manufacturers and in need of frequent repairs become cars that are more difficult to economically keep and more likely to be abandoned.

Natural disasters. The large number of cars Hurricane Katrina destroyed is well documented. Less well-known is that thousands of cars suffering water damage have found their way to markets with fraudulent titles.30 These cars are certain to lead short, troubled lives and are probably at risk of being abandoned. More commonly, hurricanes and widespread floods seriously damage a lot of cars per event. Cleaning up these cars is often part of the recovery effort.

Side Effects of Vehicle Regulation and Licensing Procedures

Auto theft and insurance fraud. Cars reported as abandoned, or cars bearing damage that attracts the attention of neighborhood residents and police, have often been stolen. These may be classified as abandoned, or as recovered stolen vehicles. Newark, N.J., police reported that of more than 26,000 vehicles towed in 2006, 539 were classified as abandoned, compared with 4,996 recoveries of stolen cars.31 In either case, they are identified, towed, and processed through similar channels. Police speculate that a reduction in abandoned vehicles reported in New York is a side effect of reduction in car theft.32

Insurance industry sources estimate that a substantial proportion of auto--theft claims are fraudulent.33 Staged thefts are also known as "give-ups," because an owner arranges to have a car taken. The vehicle may then be dumped in a remote location, burned, or otherwise totally destroyed.

Auctions of low-value vehicles. Most jurisdictions store abandoned vehicles for some period of time before destroying those of little or no value, or arranging for them to be sold. The threshold for selling unclaimed cars was $500 or more in Connecticut.34 Typically, vehicles are sold at auction with low minimum bids and low selling prices, attracting buyers in search of low-cost transportation, or very low-end used-car dealers. In Washington, D.C., car auctions formerly required only a $25 minimum bid.35 Individuals or dealers may then resell these very cheap cars. Reports from Philadelphia,36 Washington, and other cities describe how people use such cars as "disposable transportation"—operable for a few weeks, then discarded. Disposable cars may be unregistered and, as a result, may be tagged as abandoned.

Through this process, vehicles can be abandoned more than once. Old cars donated to charities may also be auctioned, adding to the number of junkers on city streets that people may later abandon.§

§ The Baltimore Transportation Department website, which describes the department's efforts to collect abandoned vehicles, includes lists of vehicles to be auctioned—more than 100 were scheduled for an auction to be held October 24, 2007.37

Registration and licensing procedures. Individual buyers and sellers of older cars may not complete title transfers or other registration requirements. One result might be that registration continues in the seller's name. Or a buyer may opt to not register the vehicle. As a result, no documentary trail exists, or records incorrectly list registration with a former owner. This makes it easier to eventually abandon an old vehicle, with little or no risk of being traced as an owner.

Long-term or unlimited parking in public facilities. People are more likely to abandon cars at locations that are not regularly monitored, or places where it's common for vehicles to be left for extended periods. A discarded car may remain for an extended time on a city street with unmetered, unlimited parking. Similarly, people routinely park cars at airport lots for several days or more. Parking lots serving large apartment complexes can also be places where an unmoved vehicle goes unnoticed for weeks or more. Identifying abandoned vehicles can be difficult in these settings, until debris accumulates on or around a car. People may also dump cars on unpaved roads or tracks near parks, or on transportation and utility corridors.

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