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Abuse of disabled parking privileges a concern for cities, states

Lori Johnston

Parking can be scarce on streets and in parking lots, especially during the holiday season. The prime spots – handicapped spaces – are getting more attention, as abuse of disabled parking permits is a growing problem in the U.S.

Disabled parking placards, badges and license plates allow disabled drivers to park in spaces closer to stores, offices and other places. When parking is at a premium, drivers face the temptation to pull into a spot designated for disabled parkers. Permission to park in disabled-only spaces is given to an array of drivers, from those with sprained ankles to those with permanent disabilities.

Some motorists engage in fraudulent use of a placard, either by using one belonging to a family member or altering the expiration date. Others take a gamble and park in the space without having the traditional blue disabled parking badge hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Often, an able-bodied driver uses a disabled parking space without getting caught.

“It’s a very tough law to enforce because the placards are assigned to vehicles rather than people. It’s not like when someone just cheats and doesn’t put money in a meter,” says Michael Manville, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, who has researched misuse of disabled parking permits.

Cities around the U.S. are cracking down on disabled parking permit fraud in a variety of ways – from sting operations (purposefully checking motorists and cars parked in disabled parking spots) to bumping up fines to even considering license revocation, which could harm a driver’s ability to hang onto car insurance.

How disabled parking fraud happens

Disabled parking placard fraud is rampant, according to the study by Manville, who was a professor at UCLA during the study. The study’s co-author was UCLA graduate student Jonathan A. Williams of Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants in Seattle.

Fraudulent use of disabled parking placards and badges, which typically are displayed inside vehicles, commonly occur in these scenarios:

  • Using a placard assigned to someone else, such as a friend or relative.
  • Using a stolen placard.
  • Using an expired temporary placard.
  • Using a permit acquired from a doctor under false pretenses.
  • Using a phony or altered placard.

Manville says the abuse even can happen as easily as this: Someone uses his car to drive around a relative who’s disabled. When the relative isn’t in the car, the driver still uses the placard for his own gain. “It becomes a crime of convenience,” Manville says.

No strong tie to car insurance

The misuse of disabled parking permits doesn’t appear to have a direct effect on car insurance rates. Non-moving violations don’t go on your driving record and don’t add points to driver’s licenses.

“It probably is a very expensive parking ticket and maybe your car gets towed,” says Mark Romano, director of insurance claims projects at the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group.

How states are fighting misuse

The problem has become so severe in some states, such as California, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon and Florida, that state lawmakers, local officials and cops have been cracking down on the abuse of disabled parking permits. Cities are losing millions of dollars in revenue because of abuse of disabled parking placards and license plates.

Laws related to assigning and using disabled parking placards are on the books in about 25 states, according to Manville’s study. Some cities and states are seeking to toughen the process for getting a disabled parking permit. Here’s how two states are tackling the issue.

  • In Michigan, only someone who’s using a wheelchair or who’s unable to operate meters on the street gets free parking. Those vehicles display yellow free-parking stickers, while holders of the traditional blue placards still must pay. Someone must obtain a doctor’s certification when applying for a placard. As a result of changes in parking laws, the number of disabled parking placards has dropped dramatically, Manville says. But a big hurdle remains in enforcing the laws, says Tom Lenard, an aide to state Rep. Jim Ananich. Ananich is sponsoring a bill that would allow municipalities to double fines for disabled parking violations, as well as to post penalties on parking signs.
  • In Illinois, state legislators passed a law in 2012 that increased fines for drivers who aren’t authorized to use disabled parking placards. A physician or other health care professional can be fined $1,000 if he falsify certifies someone for a disabled parking decal or license plate. The law also tightened up the application process. The process will face a big test in 2014, when existing placards and plates expire. In the meantime, police in Chicago have conducted sting operations targeting abusers of disabled parking privileges. “People who rely on handicap parking should not be victimized by those who … use fraudulent placards,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said when he signed the bill into law.

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