By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — For two years, lawmakers heard how placards providing disabled drivers with unlimited free parking in coveted spaces were being used illegally by scores of able-bodied drivers.
Now they want to figure out how widespread the problem truly is and devise a strategy by the end of the year for curbing the abuse.
A work group began meeting last month to consider actions ranging from closer monitoring of physicians, who determine whether a driver needs a placard, to creating a system for cops and the public to know whether what they see hanging from a car’s rearview mirror is valid. The recommendations are due Dec. 1.
“They left the door open for this group to find out what the problems are, where the problems are and what to do about them,” said Christine Anthony, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Licensing, which was assigned to lead the effort.
Other panel members come from the Department of Health, the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, The Arc of Washington and the city of Seattle, where improper use is said to be more prevalent than in any other community in the state.
A 2010 city report estimated that on any given day in downtown Seattle, between 30 percent and 40 percent of spaces were filled with vehicles with disabled parking permits, and at least 10 percent of those placards were inactive.
The percentage of improperly used placards climbs where demand is higher and supply is constricted, such as near hospitals and stores.
“We have a problem. There is misuse of some disabled parking placards,” said Cristina Van Valkenburgh, manager of Seattle’s mobility program.
This becomes a critical issue of access for people with disabilities because someone with a valid placard could be blocked from reaching their destination by a person with an invalid one, she said. Seattle is looking to the work group for help in ensuring “folks with real disabilities are getting an opportunity to park as needed.”
How they’re issued
Many of Washington’s 5.3 million licensed drivers possess disabled parking placards.
In mid-July, the number of active ones was 760,701, according to the Department of Licensing. Of those, 687,005 were permanent placards and 47,596 were license plates, both of which are renewable every five years. The remaining 26,100 were temporary placards, which are good for no more than six months.
State rules govern how each one is issued.
By law, a licensed physician must determine whether a person qualifies for a disabled parking permit. The person can be a surgeon, chiropractor, naturopath, podiatrist, advanced registered nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.
When a person applies to the state for a placard, a licensed physician must sign the application, describing under penalty of perjury the disabling condition.
There are several boxes that can be checked, including ones stating the person cannot walk 200 feet without stopping to rest, is severely limited in ability to walk because of an arthritic, neurological or orthopedic condition, or cannot walk without the use of an assistive device.
Once a placard is obtained, it can only be used when the person named in the application is in the vehicle.
Any unauthorized use of the special placard or plate is a parking infraction with a fine of $250. This includes displaying or using one that is stolen, expired, issued to a person who is now deceased or is invalid.
Too quick to sign off?
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, first took on the issue in 2012 after volunteers with the Lacey Police Department told him they had difficulty determining whether placards were valid. They recounted how drivers put them on the car’s dash and deliberately covered up the expiration date.
Hunt introduced a bill this year to look at potential remedies for abuses. It passed the House unanimously but died in the Senate. In hearings on that legislation, Seattle representatives testified to finding a lot of cars using expired or invalid placards to snag spaces near hospitals and in popular shopping areas.
“You’d like to find some way to crack down on it,” he said. “We were trying to get some conformity in the approach.”
When Hunt’s bill died, he figured he would take it up again in 2014. He was surprised to see that the final transportation budget contained a provision to pretty much do what he wanted to do.
It set up the work group and directed it to “develop a strategic plan for ending any abuse.” This group has met three times and is still gathering information.
One concern of lawmakers is whether physicians are too quick to sign off on applications, thus helping people obtain placards who really shouldn’t have them.
They want the work group to look at possible “oversight measures” to ensure placards are properly issued. Those measures could involve random checks of applications and possible sanctions for physicians found to be signing off on requests improperly.
Any sanctions would be meted out through the Department of Health, the state’s disciplinary arm for medical professionals.
Kristi Weeks, director of the Office of Legal Services for the Department of Health, said the agency doesn’t track which doctors are signing the applications, so the only way to learn about potential wrongdoing is if someone files a complaint.
“Right now I cannot say there’s an individual person who is issuing an inordinate amount or issuing them improperly,” she said. “To the best of my knowledge, we have never had a complaint related to the issuance of disabled parking placards.”
Incentives for abuse
With a placard, one can park for free for unlimited time, including in metered spaces not specially designated for disabled parking.
In Seattle, where parking is at a premium and spaces are typically hard to find and expensive, those placards are valuable commodities.
Through enforcement surveys and crackdowns, city officials have seen cars with expired placards and encountered drivers using valid ones borrowed from a relative or friend.
“There is incentive for people to use them for reasons other than the way they are intended,” said Mike Estey, manager of parking operations and traffic permits for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Such placard abuse occurs elsewhere but is far less of a problem.
“We have seen some issues in Everett. As they come up, we address them,” said Aaron Snell, spokesman for the Everett Police Department.
Incidents of misuse are recorded most often in the downtown core and around the Colby campus of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, two areas where parking is timed and, in some cases, metered. Typically it’s a borrowed permit or an expired one, he said.
“For us, it is not an overriding problem,” Snell said. “If the state were to provide more tools for enforcement, we would implement them.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.