Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of problems associated with abandoned vehicles. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Stakeholders

In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the abandoned- vehicle problem, and you should consider them for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

Local Government Agencies
Sanitation, environmental protection, streets and transportation, parking enforcement, public works, code enforcement:

Different local agencies have responsibility for regulating parking, cleaning streets, and abating environmental hazards. You should learn about routines and agency rules that may involve them in the problem of abandoned vehicles.

State-level Agencies
Vehicle registration, inspection, and licensing; state police; environmental protection:

State agencies are sources of information about vehicle registration. Obtaining timely, accurate information about ownership is important. State environmental protection agencies may be sources of assistance in cleaning up large vehicle dump sites. Other state agencies may regulate auto repair shops, auction facilities, and scrap yards.

Federal Agencies
Bureau of Land Management (BLM); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

The BLM has jurisdiction over large federal lands where people may dump vehicles. The federal EPA has developed programs for cleaning up dump sites on tribal lands.

Neighborhood Residents:
People should know how to recognize and report suspected abandoned vehicles in their neighborhood.

Tribal Land and Village Leaders:
The EPA publication Tribal Waste Journal offers examples of responses to waste disposal problems on tribal lands. Informal junk-vehicle dump sites are among the problems that have been addressed with the cooperation of tribal leaders.

Vacant Land or Brownfield Owners:
Where private land becomes a site for dumped vehicles, property owners should be involved in developing responses to the problem. Owners may welcome cleanup campaigns and assistance in blocking access roads to vacant lots.

Vehicle Towing and Storage Operators:
Most jurisdictions contract with private towing and storage operators. Any efforts to revise procedures for collecting abandoned vehicles will require collaborating with these businesses.

Auto Scrap Yards:
Scrap businesses are important resources for collecting or accepting abandoned vehicles of little value. Cleanup campaigns should be conducted in collaboration with scrap yards. Web-based information for disposing of junk cars should include listings of these businesses.

Junk-Car Collection Services:
If available in your location, these services may be useful resources for collecting unwanted vehicles.

Vehicle Auction Facilities:
Vehicle auctions are sources of older cars that may soon be abandoned, becoming a type of disposable transportation. Some jurisdictions have required that auction facilities set a higher minimum bid to reduce the number of low-value cars recycled to city streets.

Crushing- and Baling-Equipment Manufacturers and Dealers:
Jurisdictions in less populated areas may regularly rent portable car crushers as part of an annual cleanup initiative.

Hazardous Waste Abatement Services:
If junk vehicle dump sites are found in your jurisdiction, it may be necessary to engage hazardous waste disposal services. Such services may also be necessary if dumped vehicles contaminate waterways.

† See the Problem-Solving Tools guide Partnering With Businesses To Address Public Safety Problems for further information on this class of stakeholders.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your community's abandoned-vehicle problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Locations/Times

  • Are abandoned vehicles found in particular locations or types of locations? What percentage are located on public streets? On other public property, such as parks or transportation corridors? On private property?
  • Are abandoned vehicles concentrated in particular dumping spots, or are they individually left on streets? Why do these sites attract vehicle dumping?
  • For sites that attract multiple vehicles, how do people access them? Do sites adjoin public roads? Are sites posted? If barriers have been present, have they been removed or damaged?
  • Are abandoned vehicles more common in some neighborhoods?
  • Are vehicles abandoned at particular times? Or do they seem to accumulate over extended periods?
  • Incidents

    • How many abandoned vehicles are reported or recorded? How many are collected?
    • Has there been any recent change in the scope or scale of the problem?
    • How are abandoned vehicles defined and detected? Citizen reports? On view by routine police patrol? By sanitation or street-sweeping crews?
    • What are the cars’ condition? Are they operable or intact? Or do cars have damage or missing components?
    • Why are vehicles dumped? Are they old, inoperable cars? Are vehicles operable but unable to pass safety or emissions inspections? How many dumped vehicles can be linked to theft or fraudulent theft reports? Are burned-out vehicles abandoned? Do thieves burn stolen cars?
    • Are vehicles abandoned individually, or dumped in groups?
    • Do abandoned vehicles move? Is there evidence that people are using junk cars for local and/or communal transportation?
    • Do abandoned vehicles disappear after being tagged or reported? Does a prominent sticker alert gray-market scrap dealers that they may collect a car?
    • Are abandoned vehicles contributing to other forms of social disorder? Are they used as drug drops? Do homeless people sleep in them? Do street prostitutes use them?

    Environmental Hazards

    • Do dump sites pose additional environmental problems, such as drainage obstruction or water contamination?
    • Do abandoned vehicles contain refuse, debris, or hazardous materials? Does it appear that cars are filled with additional waste before being dumped? Can any additional waste be traced to particular sources?
    • Does it appear that cars are stripped after being abandoned? What parts or components are taken? Or are parts removed before cars are dumped?

    Community Perceptions and Resources

    • How concerned are community residents about the problem? Are concerns greater in some neighborhoods than in others?
    • Do property owners complain about abandoned vehicles?
    • Is information about reporting abandoned vehicles readily available to residents? What about disposing of unwanted vehicles?

    Current Practice: Reporting

    • What is the definition of an "abandoned vehicle"? How long must vehicles be unattended before they can be declared abandoned? Does the time vary by type of road or other location?
    • What local agencies are responsible for tagging vehicles as abandoned? Do police have discretion to declare vehicles as hazards and have them collected immediately?
    • Do vehicle registration and computer systems make it possible to trace vehicle registration and VIN’s quickly? Do people responsible for identifying abandoned vehicles have adequate access to data systems?
    • What proportion of abandoned vehicles is not linked to a registered owner? What proportion has no record in state vehicle-records systems?
    • How much notice must be posted on abandoned vehicles before they can be towed? What are the requirements for contacting vehicle owners?
    • What on-street parking regulations might affect the identification of abandoned vehicles? How often must vehicles be moved before they can be cited for parking violations? Are periodic on-street parking prohibitions routinely monitored?
    • How do residents report suspected abandoned vehicles? Are special telephone numbers or web-based forms available?
    • Are property owners and managers required to post notice that vehicles parked without permission will be removed at the vehicle owner’s expense? Can property owners have government agencies or contractors tow vehicles? Or must they be towed and disposed of at the property owner's expense?

    Current Practice: Towing and Disposition

    • What are the arrangements for towing and storing abandoned vehicles? Are public agencies or private contractors used? How long must vehicles be kept before they are disposed of?
    • Do auto auction facilities operate in your area? If so, how often are cars auctioned? Are auctions open to the public, or to registered dealers only? What minimum bids are required? What are documentary requirements?
    • How far is the nearest auto salvage yard that accepts junk vehicles? Will it collect junk cars from individuals? What fees, if any, does it charge?
    • Are owners required to pay for having derelict vehicles collected?
    • Do private vehicle-collection services operate in your area? If so, what are the terms of service? Is collection available only for owners who can produce a vehicle title?
    • What fines and other penalties are imposed for abandoning a vehicle on public property?
    • Are provisions for neighborhood cleanup campaigns supported in your jurisdiction? Could abandoned-vehicle initiatives be routed to existing cleanup efforts?

    Measuring Your Effectiveness

    Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the Problem-Solving Tools guide Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.

    The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to abandoned vehicles:

    • fewer vehicles collected in cleanup initiatives,
    • fewer citizen reports of abandoned vehicles,
    • fewer vehicles tagged as abandoned,
    • fewer vehicles towed,
    • reduced time between initial report and collection,
    • increase in junk vehicles disposed of through private collectors,
    • fewer abandoned vehicles sold at government auction,
    • increased proportion of vehicles disposed of as scrap,
    • reduction in vehicle arson,
    • reduced expenditures on towing and disposing of abandoned vehicles,
    • reduced citizen perceptions of abandoned vehicles as problems,
    • fewer abandoned vehicles observed at known dump sites, and
    • reduced number of vehicles meeting abandoned-vehicle definition criteria observed on streets.

    You can extract most of these measures from existing forms routinely used to collect information and document actions taken. The last two involve observational surveys that can take different forms. You can select and survey sample streets over some specific period. Or observation can supplement routine public services, such as street-cleaning or parking enforcement. This can be done periodically or regularly. In connection with a cleanup in Erie County, Pa., observational surveys were conducted to assess the scope of discarded vehicles on county roads. After implementing collection and enforcement measures, follow-up observation surveys were completed four to five months later.38,††

    †† For additional information on conducting observational surveys, see Bureau of Justice Assistance (1993) and Maxfield (2001).