What it actually means to hang a white towel on your broken-down car

Traffic on I-77 North of Charlotte looking north from the Highway 21 bridge where it crosses the interstate.

If you road-trip around the Carolinas, you’ve definitely seen this: Shirts or towels (or even plastic bags) hanging out of a window or off the side of a car that has broken down on the highway or interstate.

The objects tend to be white, but not always, probably out of desperation and a lack of options. I saw a refreshing array of highlighter-yellow fabrics when road-tripping this past weekend.

So why exactly do people leave towels or T-shirts hanging off of their broken-down cars?

A quick Google search turned up a few theories.

According to one Reddit user: “It basically means ‘Yes, I know it looks like I’ve abandoned this vehicle, but it just broke down and I swear I’m coming back to get it. Please don’t tow or ticket it.'”

Another: “I’ve never seen this in the Midwest.”

And from a TripAdvisor user: “The same way it got your attention, it might get attention from appropriate help sources. Best wishes.”

The answer

The towel is meant to signal a need for help. According to page 70 of the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook (what, you haven’t read this since driver’s ed?), “If you need help, tie a white cloth to the left door handle or the radio aerial and raise the hood of the vehicle.”

According to Steve Abbott, Assistant Director of Communications for North Carolina Department of Transportation, the white cloth is meant to signal law enforcement or, if it is a stretch of road that has the IMAP service (aka The Immediate Motorist Assistance Program), it’s signaling one of the IMAP drivers.

If you abandon the car, towel and all, it’s still at risk to get towed. The length of time it’s OK to leave a vehicle unattended depends on the type of road, location, closeness of the vehicle to the highway (this is a safety factor) and the policy of Highway Patrol and local law enforcement in that area, Abbott said.

Friendly reminder: “Shoulders are not intended for long-term parking,” Abbott said. “They are there for emergencies and they provide added recovery space should a vehicle suddenly run off the road.”

As for those orange stickers slapped onto abandoned vehicles? They function as a warning of sorts, indicating when a vehicle will be towed.

“Sort of a last chance to get the car out before a tow truck comes for it,” Abbott said.

The white cloth is a phenomenon you don’t see as much now as in the past, Abbott pointed out, and it isn’t exclusive to the Carolinas.

“So many people have cellphones now and will call for help, such as HP (Highway Patrol) or their travel service company like AAA, and just remain with the vehicle knowing help is on its way,” he said.

Photo: Mark Hames/Charlotte Observer


  1. Whenever the car gets broke down in the middle of the road, it is always recommended to turn on the hazard lights. But if the hazard lights are not working for some reason, towing specialist always recommend to put a bright color cloth hanging to the window before the towing guys arrive which will alert the fellow drivers to slow down and move away from your vehicle. This act will avoid serious accidents on road if your car suddenly breaks down.

  2. Yes, absolutely, it is a signal for help that someone needs at the time of any inconvenience. Because breakdowns may arise at any instances. And if someone faces any kind of failure, then first he should evaluate whether he can resolve it on his own or not. If he can, then it’s fine, else he should signal for help. Many car owners usually don’t know how to give a signal. They think sitting on the middle of the road is the best way to get help at the time of inconvenience. But I think it is kind of suicide. So, if anyone faces some unplanned crashes, then he should either turn on his threat light or hang a white towel or cloth on the window of driver’s side, so that others can easily get the message they he wants to transmit.

  3. My sister’s car broke down while she was on the way to work yesterday. Lucky there were no casualties but she’s upset that she had to have her car towed and miss a client meeting. Another thing you can do is to raise your hood which means your car has broken down. Thanks for the great read!

  4. White cloth hung by an abandoned car on the shoulder lane are usually
    signaling the law enforcement officers. If unattended for some time
    the car is still going to get towed. Others stickers seen are orange
    in color show that the car is almost being towed. Increasing mobile
    phones today are making white cloth signaling a thing of the past.

  5. In Maryland/DC Area you see cars broken down every day on almost every road ever few hundred feet. Two years ago we moved from Texas, and this was very surprising to us, along with the cloth on the window, I knew the cloth by the window meant in need of help, ehich I felt it was no longer needed because of cell phones now days, bit also I did notice all the cars were “abandoned” no people near by in need of help.

  6. Pretty interesting, I also often see this as you. Hanging the broken white sheet on the broken car … This seems to be a surrender, a notice seeking the help of road users from the owner of the broken car. I think this is also a smart way to find help if unfortunately broken car on the road

  7. I’ve always thought that people do this with the white T-shirt, as a way to say, yes I’m coming back for the car, not so much as a emergency though. When I broke down, before cellphones, a cop was driving by and stopped to help, and he called a local towing company for me, at 4 in the morning.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here