Abandoned Cars Litter The Streets Illegally

Drive along nearly any street and you'll operate in an ever-changing environment of moving and parked cars.

Often there isn't much you can do about the moving cars.

The parked cars are a different matter, though. It's likely that thousands of them shouldn't be there. And there are ways to get rid of them.

On my neighborhood streets, for example, I pass a pickup every day that apparently hasn't been licensed - or moved - since 1990, and a Ford with 1988 tabs.

That's illegal, and a major problem. Seattle employs five full-time parking-enforcement officers who do nothing but handle abandoned-car complaints.

About 2,000 to 3,000 such complaints come in every month, says Patricia Gilbert, parking-enforcement supervisor.

Of the reported cars, about 90 percent are moved within 24 hours after getting a warning notice, but about 300 a month still get written tickets.

Some, like the ones in my neighborhood, sit in one spot for years.

"We've had them up to five years old and the neighbors call and say, `The car's been there for five years and I'm sick and tired of it,' and you wonder what broke the camel's back," says Gilbert.

Many jurisdictions here have such a so-called "24-hour law" that essentially says vehicles can't be parked on public streets longer than 24 hours.

Even though the laws exist, enforcement is something else and, in fact, there's usually an unofficial "tolerance policy."

Reasons vary but the fact is junk cars are such an overwhelming logistical problem that most law-enforcement agencies can't make them a top priority.

"It's very time consuming to respond to all these," says Gilbert, adding that her officers don't look for work. "Our officers do not patrol for these vehicles."

Still, with salaries and benefits, Seattle spends well over $150,000 a year chasing abandoned cars.

So, although an abandoned car can draw police attention, it's more likely a neighbor's call to police will get a sticker or a ticket on the windshield.

Regardless of how it starts, a couple of things can happen next.

In Seattle, an orange sticker is put on the car, warning that it must be moved or it could be towed away.

Procedures vary from place to place, however.

Bellevue, for example, commonly just issues tickets, skipping a warning period. At that point, the owner can move the car and maybe just pay a ticket.

But if the car isn't moved it can be towed, usually after 48 hours. That towing cost will start at about $50 and go up.

That's more than a lot of cars are worth so they're finally auctioned, sometimes for $5 or $10, says Gilbert, not even enough to cover the towing costs, so the tow company takes a loss.

That's led to proposed legislation to have the state pay the owner a kind of turn-in fee of perhaps $50 for the car on the theory that if a hulk was worth money people wouldn't abandon it, and that would be cheaper than what we do now.

That's not a state law yet and the hangup is where the money would come from.

But you're likely to see such policies become widespread as society tries to figure ways to try to make people pay for the total life-cycle costs of a car, sort of like paying a 5-cent deposit on a pop bottle.

But one thing you can be sure of with cars - it'll be more than 5 cents.

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