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 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