If a car is left in a designated tow-away zone, the State Patrol will impound it. Otherwise, an abandoned car along the freeway that doesn’t pose a danger to other motorists is tagged and the owner has 24 hours to move it.

Share story

A handful of cars are parked along the side of Interstates 5 and 405 when Jennifer Branstad drives to and from work, but she never sees anyone inside them.

“This morning on my way to work, I saw three [abandoned cars] between Bothell and Bellevue. I’ve never noticed this in any of the other states I’ve lived,” said Branstad, who came to Washington from California.

Baffled by what she sees, Branstad wrote to Traffic Lab.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

“Why are abandoned cars so common on the freeway here?” asked Branstad, who moved from Seattle to Bothell last year. “And, what happens to them? The majority I see still have their [license] plates. Does the state track down the owners? Are there fines for abandoning your car?”

Most cars left along the freeway have broken down, said Washington State Patrol Trooper Rick Johnson, such as from overheating or mechanical problems.

In a forum on Reddit, some users said they left their car along the roadside when they ran out of gas, couldn’t afford a tow truck after a breakdown, or had damage from a car that caught on fire.

What happens to an abandoned car depends on where it’s been left, Johnson said.

If a car is in a designated tow-away zone, the State Patrol will impound it. Troopers will also have the vehicle towed if it’s too close to the fog line or on the left side — usually the faster side — of the freeway and causing a distraction or danger for motorists.

Cars left elsewhere are tagged with a ribbon tied to the antenna as a cue to other troopers that the vehicle has been marked. The car is entered into a state tracking system and the owner has 24 hours from that time to retrieve it before it’s towed.

“We also try and find a phone number associated with the owner to ascertain what their plan is with the vehicle,” Johnson said.

Often, he said, drivers call the State Patrol to tell the agency of their situation and intention to return with some help to get the vehicle running or towed away.

If the vehicle does get impounded, Johnson said towing costs fall on the registered owner. Those costs can be around $200 plus storage fees.

The state uses private towing companies to remove abandoned cars from the roadside.

Drivers pay for the towing fees when they get their car from the towing company. If a driver doesn’t pick up an impounded car, tow companies often send a notification to the registered owner and, if they get no response, auction off the car after a certain amount of time.

Since first noticing the abandoned cars, Branstad said she’s become more aware of them. That may be why she thinks there are more here than other states where she’s lived, she acknowledged.

Johnson said he doesn’t know whether abandoned cars are more common in Washington, or whether there’s been a recent uptick in the number. The state has no specific violation code for abandoned cars, so the numbers aren’t tracked.

Got a question?

Do you have a question about transportation for Traffic Lab? We’d like to try to answer it. Send your questions to trafficlab@seattletimes.com or tweet at us @STtrafficlab, and we may feature them in an upcoming column.