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Responses to the Problem of Abandoned Vehicles

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. In some cases, you may need to shift the responsibility of responding toward those who have the capacity to implement more-effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Few systematic evaluations have been conducted on responses to the problem of abandoned vehicles. Most information on responses comes from brief reports of U.S. initiatives or descriptions of more-extensive U.K. actions. Most U.K. initiatives have resulted from two large-scale policy changes. First is the End-of-Life Vehicle (ELV) directive issued by the European Union.39 The ELV specifies extensive steps to safely dispose of vehicles and their components, together with cost-sharing that adds disposal fees to new cars sold in European Union member states. Second is an enhanced national focus on antisocial behavior as a public safety and disorder problem.40 Abandoned vehicles are among the types of disorder linked to this new focus.41

As a result, the best that can be offered from promising responses is some evidence that more vehicles are being collected, or fewer are being abandoned. In many cases, such evidence is helpful in tailoring responses to your local problem.

Most strategies for dealing with abandoned vehicles will require coordination with agencies and other organizations beyond police. Because so many different stakeholders are involved in the abandoned-vehicle problem, it is usually necessary to work with different individuals and organizations.

It may also be advisable to propose changes in local or state laws for defining and addressing the problem of abandoned vehicles. Police play a major role in vehicle regulation and public safety, and should be prepared to propose changes that would more effectively address problems associated with abandoned vehicles.

Specific Responses To Reduce Abandoned Vehicles

Responses to abandoned vehicles are best considered in two broad categories: those that center on identifying and removing them, and those that prevent vehicles from being dumped.

Removing Abandoned Vehicles

1. Identifying and reporting abandoned vehicles. It is important to have clear guidelines for designating a vehicle as abandoned. This makes it possible for police, other public workers, and private residents to recognize and report them as soon as possible.

  • The Albuquerque (N.M.) Police Department incorporates a detailed description into its online website for reporting abandoned vehicles (http://www.cabq.gov/police/abandonedvehicleform.html).
  • The Philadelphia Police Department online reporting form includes diagrams of cars to aid in reporting vehicle condition and identifying individual vehicles.
  • The British organization Encams, which collaborates with governments on environmental policy, offers a detailed public information page on abandoned vehicles .

As part of a statewide effort to address the abandoned-vehicle problem, Michigan enhanced online information about registration and towing. The "Auto lost and found" website provides access to police, authorized towing contractors, and vehicle owners. The site also includes a description of different categories of abandoned vehicles, distinguishing junkers from those left on highways after mechanical breakdowns (http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,1607,7-127-1640_14837-123588--,00.html).

2. Coordinating with other agencies. In addition to police, sanitation department workers make regular trips throughout cities and settled rural areas. Street-cleaning is a regular activity in many cities. Police and other agency personnel who routinely travel through a jurisdiction should be aware of signs that a vehicle is abandoned, and develop standard reporting practices. Parking and street-cleaning regulations can be useful for identifying abandoned vehicles. Street parking can be banned overnight, rendering any vehicle parked after a certain hour eligible for removal.42 Periodic no-parking zones, possibly linked to street-cleaning, also make it more difficult to abandon a vehicle inconspicuously among parked cars.

Parking and street-cleaning regulations can be useful for identifying abandoned vehicles.

Parking and street-cleaning regulations can be useful for identifying abandoned vehicles. Photo credit: Michael Maxfield

3. Removing derelict vehicles as quickly as possible. The longer abandoned vehicles remain on streets, the more likely they are to be targets of vandalism, arson, and other harmful activities. In less populated places, dump sites emerge as the presence of one dumped car begins to attract others. Recognizing that abandoned vehicles are hazardous to traffic, public safety, and the environment, generally, can be an important lever in reducing the interval between reporting and removing. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between derelict vehicles of little value and disabled cars that present immediate traffic hazards. Michigan reduced the time interval for designating vehicles as abandoned in many types of sites from 48 to 24 hours. This reduced the number of cars further damaged by vandals and resulted in more vehicles' being returned to owners.43 A variety of U.K. initiatives have been launched to quickly identify and remove abandoned vehicles. Often this requires reducing the time between identifying and removing a vehicle.

  • In Operation Magpie, police in the local areas of Cleveland and Redcar, England, circumvented a required seven-day notice period by immediately removing abandoned vehicles to a central location; after seven days, they could be recycled.44
  • Operation Cubit, in Kent County, England, reduced the notice period from seven to 15 days to immediate removal for categories of cars.45
  • Police in Avon and Somerset, England, revised a previous seven-day notice period to allow immediate removal if a vehicle was obviously inoperable. "Communal" vehicles—unregistered but operable cars used by several people—were removed within 30 minutes of identification.46
  • Many U.S. cities have recently reduced the amount of time that elapses before a tagged vehicle can be removed. In most cases, the shorter time—two to three days—was established in response to citizen complaints, or drains on police resources that resulted from continuing to monitor vehicles over two weeks or more.47 You should devote some thought to how abandoned vehicles are tagged. Experience in the United Kingdom indicates that large, conspicuous stickers may attract scavengers or arsonists before a car can be towed.48 Anecdotal reports from New York City indicate that scrap-metal scavengers may collect vehicles prominently tagged as abandoned before the sanitation department can tow them.49

4. Establishing routines for long-term parking facilities. Cars abandoned at long-term parking facilities and in areas where it's common for vehicles to be parked for extended periods present special problems. Airport parking lots are examples of facilities where people can park cars unnoticed for extended periods. Boston's Logan Airport starts trying to contact owners after cars have been parked for one month or more.50 A maximum time period for legal parking, coupled with daily or other regular inventories, can help identify abandoned vehicles more quickly. License-recognition equipment, used in some airport parking inventories, can automate the process of identifying cars parked for unreasonably long periods.

5.Cleaning up in abandoned vehicle "sweeps." Large-scale cleanup campaigns are most useful in cases where abandoned vehicles have accumulated over some time. Concentrations may occur in specific neighborhoods or citywide in urban areas. Cleanup campaigns have been conducted in cities (Philadelphia; Washington; Detroit; Omaha, Neb.) and in less populated areas (Erie County, tribal lands). They are sometimes combined with amnesty campaigns (described below) that allow owners to dispose of unwanted cars for free. Or abandoned vehicle sweeps can be combined with cleanup campaigns that target neighborhood blight or illegal dumping.51 Most such efforts require working with neighborhood and business associations, as well as the usual organizations involved with processing abandoned cars. It may be possible to finance abandoned-vehicle sweeps with grant funds or contributions from business or service organizations.

Since they usually go beyond routine practice, cleanups require three key elements:

  • contracting with towing companies to remove vehicles;
  • publicizing the campaign, along with special provisions for reporting vehicles; and
  • supplementing routines for identifying owners and disposing of vehicles.

Sweeps can be efficient when contracts are issued to towing contractors and scrap yards that will collect and dispose of junk cars. This might include temporary deployment of numerous tow trucks, or renting portable car-crushing equipment.52 Rapidly collecting and crushing derelict cars was a key feature of the U.K.'s Operation Cubit, set up in many cities.53, §

§ Police in Fort Myers, Fla.,54 worked with business owners and neighborhood residents to clean up trash and junk cars from a commercial strip and nearby residential areas. More than 200 cars were removed, building code violations were cited, stray shopping carts were collected, and vacant lots, generally, were cleaned up.

6.Using community volunteers. Abandoned-vehicle problems are well-suited to police-citizen collaboration.55 Handling the problem of abandoned vehicles every day can be time-consuming. Vehicles must be viewed (either through routine patrol or in response to reports), tagged, revisited after the time window for towing, and towed. Using volunteers can increase reporting and speed the removal of junk cars, without requiring additional uniformed resources. Volunteers can also be trained to identify communal vehicles. Some jurisdictions draw on auxiliary or similar groups of volunteers to help identify, report, and monitor vehicles that appear to be abandoned. San Diego and Claremont, Calif., are examples of cities that use senior-citizen volunteers to help with traffic control and abandoned-vehicle abatement (http://www.volunteermatch.org/orgs/org14553.html). Police in Austin, Texas, have used participants in a Volunteers in Policing program to tag and monitor abandoned vehicles. London's Metropolitan Police have begun using street wardens as part of a community-based initiative to monitor illegal dumping and abandoned vehicles.56

7. Publicizing the problem. Especially in urban areas, people may not recognize the signs that vehicles are abandoned. Publicity describing how to identify abandoned vehicles by recognizing features of a vehicle's condition can encourage residents to report suspected abandoned/communal vehicles. People living in less populated areas can be urged to report suspected dump sites. U.K. environmental organizations have proposed general publicity campaigns and implemented them in several local areas.57 Providing online web forms or distinctive public information campaigns can encourage people to report. In East Northhamptonshire, England, the End-of-Life Vehicle Impoundment Scheme (ELVIS) displays a caricature of Elvis Presley singing into a telephone, together with information on how to identify and report abandoned vehicles. Publicity can also make people aware of opportunities for volunteer service and how to properly dispose of unwanted cars.

Preventing Vehicles From Being Abandoned

8. Making legitimate disposal cheaper and easier. Eliminating vehicle collection and/or disposal fees reduces incentives for illegal dumping. Local U.K. councils routinely offer free disposal.58 This can be especially important for people who can afford to drive only older, unreliable cars, and therefore will be less willing to pay disposal costs. In most cases, the cost of tagging, marking, and collecting abandoned vehicles will be higher than revenue lost from reducing or eliminating fees.59 Also, additional trash or hazardous waste may be deposited in abandoned cars that linger on city streets; auto scrap dealers may not accept cars that contain additional waste. Making legitimate disposal easier is also important, especially in less populated areas distant from scrap yards or recyclers.60 Periodically arranging for portable car crushers can be useful in rural areas. In some cases, portable car crushers temporarily used to package scrap metal can also accommodate junk vehicles.61 Or local and county governments might collaborate to buy car crushers that would serve as a regional resource for vehicle disposal.62

9. Using amnesty campaigns. If it is not feasible to reduce or eliminate car disposal fees, it may be possible to organize periodic amnesty periods when people can arrange to have junk vehicles collected for free. These initiatives may be combined with large-scale cleanup campaigns in which towing companies and car scrap businesses are enlisted to cover a particular city or area.63 One comprehensive U.K. initiative offered a reward of about $15 for turning in a junk car with proper documentation.64

10.Promoting private junk-car collection services. An increasing number of junk-car disposal services have become available in response to increases in scrap metal's value. JunkMyCar.com claims to operate in all states. Users enter a zip code to begin the process of locating an affiliated towing company in the area. Other services offer to collect old cars, which are donated to charities. Local contractors who are affiliated with these consolidation services arrange to collect old vehicles and offer tax deductions for charity contributions. The legitimacy of such services—hidden costs, for example—should be investigated before promoting them. Though no studies exist, it is likely that car owners will use such services more as alternate ways to dispose of junk vehicles legitimately rather than to prevent vehicles from being abandoned.

11. Using publicity to promote legitimate disposal. Publicity can help prevent vehicles from being dumped by making people aware of how old vehicles can be disposed of, and by alerting the public to additional harms associated with abandoned vehicles. Publicity is best coupled with other initiatives, such as amnesty, free pickup and disposal, or sweeps to collect unwanted cars.65 The New York City Sanitation Department includes information about how to locate scrap car dealers on its website for reporting abandoned vehicles. In an effort to encourage cleanups of illegal dumps and abandoned cars on tribal lands, the U.S. EPA described success stories in selected areas.66 In the United Kingdom, publicity campaigns use a type of shaming to reduce illegal dumping of cars and other large waste.67

12. Increasing the threshold value for scrapping vehicles. Most jurisdictions distinguish impounded vehicles as having resale or only scrap value. Setting higher thresholds for designating vehicles as having resale value can reduce the number of older, low-cost vehicles that are sold at auction and likely to be abandoned later.68 This has greater potential if local dealers sell auctioned cars. If cars valued at less than, say, $1,500 are crushed and sold as scrap, they cannot later be resold and abandoned. This disrupts the cycle of abandonment, resale, and re-abandonment. U.K. initiatives encourage local governments to scrap a larger proportion of impounded vehicles rather than selling them at auction.69 This can also reduce the problem of "invisible" or communal vehicles.70 Increasing the threshold for scrapping vehicles is especially appropriate when the value of scrap metal rises.

13. Increasing minimum bids at car auctions. Auctions of old or damaged vehicles can be a source of junk cars that are eventually abandoned or used as unregistered vehicles. Having low minimum bids increases the likelihood that the most decrepit vehicles will be back on the road. Washington, D.C., increased the minimum bid from $25 to $500, then later reduced it to $250 when auction sales declined too sharply.71 This response requires working with auction houses and related businesses.72, §

§ People are more likely to abandon older, low-cost vehicles or use them as community transportation. Restricting the sale of such vehicles can reduce the number of junk cars that are eventually dumped. This can be complicated, since auctions of impounded cars, many of which have been previously collected as abandoned vehicles, may recycle junk cars back to the streets. In addition, businesses that collect or consolidate cars for charity may sell them to auto auction houses and further contribute to the problem.

14. Working with low-end used-car dealers. Responses to increase scrap thresholds and minimum auction bids can affect low-end used-car dealers who buy older cars at auctions for local resale. In some cases, "dealers" may sell very few cars as a sort of part-time business, but still contribute to the flow of older cars back onto the streets, in a kind of gray market for low-cost transportation.73 A side effect of strategies to increase minimum bids at auctions while raising the threshold for scrapping vehicles is the decreased availability of low-end used cars. Police can work with dealers in two ways: (1) describing how the low-end vehicle market contributes to abandoned-vehicle problems, while explaining efforts to reduce that problem; and (2) initiating more careful scrutiny of VIN's and documents.74

15. Adjusting rules for parking and street-cleaning. Because unlimited street parking can conceal an abandoned vehicle for extended periods, parking rules that require cars to be moved periodically can increase the difficulty of dumping vehicles on public streets. An extreme example is prohibiting overnight parking, a response that cannot be used where street-parking is common. Areas where overnight street-parking by residents is the norm could implement local-area residential parking permits. This makes it easier to identify cars that are illegally parked, aiding both formal and informal surveillance. Jurisdictions that have regular street-cleaning can also make it more difficult to abandon a vehicle unobtrusively.

16. Securing dump sites. Sites that attract dumping of junk vehicles and other waste usually combine access with lack of surveillance. In urban areas, these include abandoned factories, transportation access roads, and other urban wastelands. People often access dump sites in rural and less populated areas via rough roads or trails.75 Restricting access can prevent dumping at all types of sites. This might include installing or repairing gates. In urban areas, CCTV can add surveillance. Such responses require working with other agencies in the case of government facilities, or with private property owners.76

17. Assisting property owners at sites where people dump cars. Some parking lots cannot be fenced or gated; those serving large apartment complexes or shopping malls are examples. You can encourage managers to conduct regular inventories of cars parked on their property. Apartment complexes that offer parking should record tenants' license plate numbers. Such places should also post notice that unauthorized vehicles will be towed. Police can work with owners and managers to develop routines for identifying and removing suspected abandoned vehicles.

18. Assessing cost-of-disposal fees. The European Union ELV directive requires that member countries establish programs for junk vehicles to be properly disposed of at no cost to the last registered owner. Further, effective in 2007, individual countries must require that manufacturers pay for all or most of the cost of disposing of vehicles they produce.77 Policies for implementing the directive are still under development, and such legislative initiatives are beyond the scope of local police agencies. However, some U.S. jurisdictions have supplemented local vehicle-registration fees to offset vehicle disposal costs. The city of Juneau, Alaska, added $22 to the cost of a two-year local vehicle registration to cover the costs of handling an estimated 700 abandoned vehicles each year.78 Over 30 years ago, California assessed an abandoned- vehicle abatement fee on all cars registered in the state. That has since devolved to counties, authorizing them to supplement local registration fees to offset vehicle disposal costs.79

19. Anticipating seasonal abandonment. If data indicate that people abandon vehicles at some regular interval—the end of summer at seaside communities, or the end of term in university towns—it is advisable to launch publicity and other initiatives in anticipation. In much the same way that jurisdictions prepare for large-scale disposal of shabby furniture in college towns as students move on, amnesty and large-scale cleanups can be launched. If airport parking lots are subject to seasonal dumping, inventories of parked cars can be enhanced during those times. A similar strategy is to develop plans for problems following natural disasters that damage or destroy a lot of vehicles.80

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

20. Increasing fines for vehicle abandonment. The cost of tracking down owners of dumped vehicles can quickly exceed the amount recovered through fines. It may not be possible to locate the last registered owner of a dumped vehicle. If found, the last registered owner may claim to have sold or given the car away, or claim that someone stole the car. These difficulties are multiplied in jurisdictions where people abandon a lot of cars.

21. Increasing fees for collecting unwanted vehicles. This response counters the economic incentives that encourage vehicle abandonment. As the cost or difficulty of legitimate disposal increases, people will illegally dump more vehicles.

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