Plan to end free parking for disabled is shelved

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers are putting the brakes on a proposal to end unlimited free street parking for tens of thousands of drivers with disabilities.

Members of the House Transportation Committee stripped the controversial idea from a bill targeting fraudulent use of placards in communities across the state.

Sponsors of House Bill 2463 wanted to create a two-tier system in which drivers whose disability doesn’t prevent them from feeding coins into a meter pay, and only those physically unable to access a machine be allowed to park for free.

They calculated the change might remove the incentive for able-bodied drivers to misuse a placard in order to enjoy the perk of not paying for prime parking spots.

Opponents told lawmakers in a recent hearing the result would punish those with disabilities who can reach a meter but have other mobility challenges preventing them from completing their task and returning in the allotted time.

“We do believe that fraudulent use of these placards is a serious problem in our state,” said Jim Freeburg, advocacy director for the Greater Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “But we do not think tackling this problem should come at the expense of legitimate users.”

The panel axed the idea of a two-tier system last week then approved the bill which contains several other tweaks in state rules on how people obtain and display the placards.

Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, suggested removing the objectionable component to keep the bill alive.

“I hope it can move forward,” he said Monday. “I think it still will curb (abuses) to some extent.”

Freeburg’s group supports the amended bill.

“It makes reasonable changes to help law enforcement better detect fraudulent use,” Freeburg said Monday. “We encourage local officials to focus on enforcement rather than taking away privileges from legitimate users.”

The Legislature has wrestled with the problem of placard misuse. Thousands are in circulation.

In mid-July, the Department of Licensing had 687,005 permanent placards and 47,596 license plates, both of which are renewable every five years. Another 26,100 temporary placards had been handed out; those are valid for no more than six months. At that time, Washington had roughly 5.3 million licensed drivers.

A work group, led by the Department of Licensing and with representatives of disabled drivers and the city of Seattle, spent last summer and fall considering if placards are too easy to obtain and if the practice of letting physicians sign off on applications is too loose and in need of revising.

In December, they delivered a report to lawmakers in which the most significant recommendation was requiring holders of the familiar blue placards to start paying for on-street parking unless they qualify for an exemption because of their physical limitations.

It had other suggestions, most of which are now written into the revised version of House Bill 2463.

One of those is a requirement that health care practitioners provide signed authorization for a patient to get special parking privileges on “tamper-resistant” prescription pad or office letterhead. Current law lets them sign a standard application form and lawmakers think the change will reduce the chance of people forging their doctor’s signature.

The bill also requires drivers to make sure the entire placard is displayed. It says the placard serial number and expiration date must be clearly visible from a distance of 10 feet. Failure to do so could lead to a ticket with a $450 fine.

Under the bill, if a person is found to have unlawfully obtained or transferred their placard, plate, tab, or card they could be forced by a court to give it up.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who introduced the original bill, said he’s tried to find solutions to the problem for three years.

“We’re trying to do this responsibly,” he said, and without creating any “stiff barriers” to those who need them.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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