Plan would end free parking for disabled drivers

OLYMPIA — Tens of thousands of drivers with disabilities could soon find their blue placard doesn’t guarantee them unlimited free parking in Washington.

A report delivered to lawmakers Dec. 19 recommends drivers whose disability doesn’t prevent them from feeding coins into a meter should pay, and only those physically unable to reach a machine be allowed to park for free.

Making some placard-holders pay should remove a major incentive for those who fraudulently use them in order to park as long as they want in reserved spaces for free, concluded members of a work group who wrote the 47-page report.

“It is apparent that free parking or allowing time beyond that posted for those with the disabled placard or license plate are the likely root causes to fraudulent use of disabled parking privileges,” the report states.

The Legislature created the nine-person work group in June to find ways to curb abuse of the placards and license plates, determine if placards are too easy to obtain and if the practice of allowing physicians sign off on applications is too loose and in need of revising.

Many of Washington’s roughly 5.3 million licensed drivers possess disabled parking placards.

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.

The panel had members from the state departments of licensing and health, the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, The Arc of Washington and the city of Seattle, where improper use is more prevalent than in any other community in the state.

One of the most significant recommendations will be to require holders of the familiar blue placards to start paying for on-street parking unless they qualify for an exemption because of their physical limitations.

Existing state law provides the privilege to anyone with a valid disabled parking placard or license plate. The work group tried unsuccessfully to figure out the intent behind that provision of state law.

“We were not able to determine intent and could not find a nexus between having a disability and being able to pay for parking,” they wrote.

The work group recommends a person be granted a meter-exempt placard if they cannot:

•Insert coins in parking meters or obtain tickets from ticket machines in parking lots or ramps because of a lack of fine motor control of both hands.

Reach up to 42 inches from the ground, because of lack of finger, hand or upper extremity strength or mobility.

Approach a parking meter because of use of a wheelchair or other device.

Walk more than 20 feet because of an orthopedic, neurological, cardiovascular or lung condition that is so severe that the ability to walk is almost completely impeded.

The report also recommends cities and counties are given the authority to allow for free parking or additional time for all placard holders if they choose.

Other recommendations include harsher penalties for illegally obtaining or using a placard. They want punishment changed from a traffic infraction with a fine to a misdemeanor offense that carries a threat of time behind bars.

Redesigning placards would help law enforcement officers determine when one is expired or being improperly used. They suggest adding a serial number at the center and a barcode on the bottom that could be easily scanned through the window.

If lawmakers embrace the idea, licensing officials estimated it would take two years to design a new placard and develop rules on how it would be given out, according to the report.

The work group suggests several wording changes on the forms physicians fill out to make drivers eligible to obtain a placard.

Lawmakers are expected to consider the report and its recommendation in the 2014 session which begins Jan. 13.

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

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