What Happens to Cars Abandoned on Highways?

Updated: Jun. 10, 2022

It depends on where you are.

If you’ve ever driven along a highway and looked over to see an abandoned car on the side of the road, you’ve probably wondered what’s going to happen to it. There are a variety of reasons why a driver would leave their car behind on the side of the road, like running out of gas and having to walk to the nearest gas station. After a car accident, typically the cars are moved to the side of the road until being towed away. Abandoned cars can also appear in commercial parking lots and residential neighborhoods. But who’s job is it to remove the car, and how do they do it? Regardless of where you are, here are a few safe driving tips for scary driving situations.

Abandoned vs. Unclaimed vehicles: What’s the difference?

First, it’s good to figure out what kind of vehicle you’re dealing with. According to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, an abandoned vehicle is a motor vehicle that’s been left unattended on another property without the owner’s permission for longer than 96 hours. An unclaimed vehicle, on the other hand, is a vehicle held under the law by a business until the customer pays. Think of having a car towed and needing to pick it up, or leaving your car at the mechanic while awaiting repairs. Each state has its own rules and regulations. For example, unlike New York, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles considers a vehicle abandoned if it has remained on private property for more than 48 hours. These are the 30 things your car mechanic won’t tell you.

What’s the policy on removing vehicles?

There are no federal regulations regarding the removal of abandoned vehicles. Instead, that’s up to the states and municipalities to decide what to do with the abandoned cars. It’s best to check with your state and municipality to see what the exact rules and regulations are regarding abandoned vehicles. The general process is a citizen would notify the police department about the abandoned vehicle. Once notified, the vehicle is identified and tagged. If the vehicle has not been moved by the owner within a certain time frame, then the car is towed away and held until the owner comes to collect the car. If the car isn’t claimed within a reasonable time period at an impound lot, then the car will either go up for auction at inexpensive prices to willing buyers or be destroyed. Here are 13 things you’re doing in your car—but shouldn’t.

Highways aren’t the only places where abandoned cars are removed. Many citizens take constructive action and report abandoned vehicles in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, you can tell when a car has been abandoned by the parking tickets accruing on the windshield, or if all of its identifying features are missing. Like many states, in Vermont, private property owners are able to call towing companies to remove a car that has been abandoned on their property.

Abandoned cars were a huge issue in metropolitan areas. In the late 1980s, the Department of Sanitation in New York City removed 148,257 abandoned cars from New York City streets. There was even a time when New York City tried to ban cars and create a car-free section of downtown Manhattan. Having a car is a major responsibility, even if the car isn’t quite in working order. Next, read about what happens to all of the cars that never get sold at car dealerships.