What Does a Shirt in the Window of a Car Mean?

While cars are personal property, the state can seize them if left abandoned on public or private property over long periods of time. This explains why informal tactics like hanging a shirt in the window are prevalent in certain areas. But what exactly does a shirt in the car window mean?

A shirt in the window of the car means that the vehicle has broken down and the owner has briefly stepped away to get help. People use this tactic in some states of the United States of America to notify law enforcement not to impound the car since it is involuntarily deserted.

Since we moved to Delaware from California, we have seen various things that have surprised us. Hanging a shirt in the window of a car when the car has broken down is one of them. When I first saw one, I thought someone was in danger. But I didn’t see anyone around the car that needed help.

Keep reading to learn what a shirt in the window of a car means. We’ll also talk about the meaning of orange stickers in windows, and how to retrieve your car if it gets towed.

Can a Car Be Towed/Impounded With a Shirt in the Window?

A shirt in the window of a car essentially means nothing to most law enforcement officers. It won’t guarantee they don’t tow your vehicle once they find it.

Drivers will use shirts, towels, plastic bags, and even white paper that they roll up in their windows. The message is, I had some car trouble, but I will be right back.

Some states will give you up to 48-72 hours to collect your car; some will give you less. The essence of using this signal in the states where it is relevant is that the owner will return promptly. Otherwise, the message is invalid.

Users on TripAdvisor note that this communication is common in Virginia and Ohio and very popular in the Carolinas. 

I personally don’t remember seeing this in California. Either way, this tactic may not work in states like California or New York. With massive populations, and heavy traffic, abandoned cars are often a traffic hazard

If you leave your car unattended too long, you may get an orange sticker on the rearview window or windshield. This sticker is a warning to you by the police to get your car, or they will impound it.

Meaning of an Orange Sticker on a Deserted Car

Have you ever seen an orange or yellow sticker on the window of a car? I have and didn’t know what it meant. The laws vary by locality, but ordinarily, it’s a warning sticker issued by the police, usually after a 72-hour maximum grace period.  

If you don’t respond to the warning, the car may be removed, or impounded. And depending on how many days it has been abandoned it may possibly be sold at auction.

If you are a car owner, you know that getting your car towed by the police is not a good experience. It means heaps of paperwork, time, and money. 

What tells The Police That Your Car is Abandoned

These are the common clues that might lead police to deem your car abandoned:

  • The car is parked in the same location for an extended period of time without being moved.
  • The car is parked in an area where it is not permitted to be parked, such as on private property or in a no-parking zone.
  • The car has an expired registration.
  • The car appears to be in disrepair or in a state of disuse.
  • The car is found with flat tires or no tires.

How To Retrieve Your Car Once Impounded

Life happens, and you may not be on time to pick up your car. When this happens, these are the steps you can follow:

  1. Find out where your car is being held. You will need to contact the police department or the impound service company to find out where it is being held.
  2. Gather the required documentation. You will need to provide proof of ownership for the impounded vehicle, such as the car’s registration or title. You may also need to provide a valid driver’s license or government-issued identification.
  3. Pay the required fees. You will need to pay any impound and storage fees associated with your car’s impoundment before it can be released.
  4. Schedule a release time. You will need to schedule a time to pick up your car, as impound lots may have specific hours of operation and may not release vehicles outside those hours.
  5. Pick up your car. At the scheduled release time, go to the impound lot with your documentation and identification and pay any remaining fees. Once all the requirements are met, the impound lot should release the car to you.

Should you fail to claim your car in the specified timeframe, the state may auction it off. You don’t want to get to this point because you may have to appear in court to try to reverse this ruling of the state.

Steps To Follow When a Car Breaks Down

Next time your car breaks down keep these steps in mind before you frantically look for a shirt to put in the window of your car.

  1. Safely pull over: If possible, pull over to the side of the road in a safe location, away from traffic. Turn on your emergency blinkers to warn other drivers of your presence.
  2. Assess the situation: Try to determine what is causing the breakdown. If you notice any warning lights or hear unusual noises, try to remember them later when you talk to a mechanic or tow truck driver.
  3. Call for help: If you are unable to fix the problem safely, call for help. You can call a tow truck, a mobile mechanic, or a roadside assistance service. If you have a membership with a roadside assistance program, such as AAA, use that number. If you don’t have a membership, use your mobile phone to search for nearby towing companies and call the one that is closest to you.
  4. Wait in a safe place: Once you have called for help, wait in a safe place away from your vehicle. If you are on a highway or busy road, wait inside your car with the doors locked and the windows closed.
  5. Notify the authorities if necessary: If your car is blocking traffic or is in a dangerous location, you should contact the police and let them know about the situation.
  6. Get your car to a professional: Once it is towed, take it to a trusted mechanic or service center to diagnose and repair it. 

If you follow these steps, you may not need to put a shirt in the window of your car.


Placing a shirt in a car’s window is a signal in some states of the United States to indicate that the vehicle has broken down and the owner has temporarily left to seek assistance. Although it doesn’t always work, this tactic is used to notify law enforcement that the car is not abandoned and should not be impounded. It serves as a warning that the vehicle is involuntarily deserted and the owner intends to return to it, but the police may ignore it as it is not considered an official practice.

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