The Reason People Hang White Towels or Bags on Broken-Down Cars

She's wishing she had a towel right about now.
She's wishing she had a towel right about now. / ljubaphoto/E+ via Getty Images

There’s all kinds of silent communication taking place on roads, from trucks that mount stuffed animals on their grilles to people flashing their lights. And if you’ve come across an abandoned car, you may have seen a white towel, T-shirt or plastic bag tied around the driver’s mirror. So what is the driver trying to tell you?

According to The Charlotte Observer, the reason drivers sometimes tie a piece of cloth or bag to their car is to signal that they’re in need of some assistance. Specifically, the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook states that a white cloth tied to a door or radio antenna can draw attention to your vehicle: so can raising the hood, even if you have no idea what you’re doing in there.

This practice varies widely by region. Depending on where you live, you may have never heard of it. It was also clearly of more benefit in an era prior to cell phones, before calling a family member or roadside assistance was as easily accessible. If you see someone using a makeshift flag on the road, it’s possible the driver is older and remembers the practice being more common or doesn’t have a phone with them.

Some people believe the towel can prevent the car from being towed in the event it needs to be temporarily abandoned, but it’s not likely to help much. If law enforcement deems a vehicle needs to be relocated, a ripped T-shirt isn’t going to dissuade them.