Cheating Meters

Disabled placards are under scrutiny as the state investigates parking abuse

Seattle, for one, estimates disabled parking abuse costs the city $1.4 million a year. - CHRIS BOVEY
Chris Bovey
Seattle, for one, estimates disabled parking abuse costs the city $1.4 million a year.

They’re the people who park in the designated spot just for a minute, just one. Or those who stash the placard in the glove box and use it when they’re out of change for a meter. Or those who borrow placards indefinitely, continue using expired ones or even counterfeit and sell them on the streets.

They’re disabled parking abusers, and they’re all over Washington. Abuse is so common that the Legislature appointed a work group to tackle the issue. Although the action stems from rampant handicapped parking fraud in cities like Vancouver and especially Seattle, Spokane sees its fair share of abuse.

“All you have to do is walk around downtown, and there are blocks just full of handicapped parkers,” says Jan Quintrall, Spokane’s director of business and development services, which oversees parking enforcement.

The density of disabled parking placards is making people skeptical.

“It’s heavy enough that it seems unlikely that all that usage is legitimate,” says Toby Olson, executive secretary for the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, part of the group convened by the Legislature.

The work group, which began meeting in June, is charged with finding out exactly how widespread disabled parking abuse is and strategizing how to stop it, according to its spokeswoman Christine Anthony. The group will set stricter standards for medical professionals who write recommendations for placards and establish a public system to check the validity of placards. The work group’s deadline to submit its findings, recommendations and a draft for legislative action is Dec. 1.

For some, the issue is more than a place to park. Theresa Kennedy, an independent living advocate with Spokane’s Coalition of Responsible Disabled, says the abuse is a societal blow to the disabled.

“It’s sending the message that you don’t have a place in our community,” she says. “It sends the message [to] the person who needs special accommodations that they don’t deserve to have that accommodation.”

Disabled parking placards and license plates are meant for people with a variety of disabilities, ranging from chronic arthritis to acute sensitivity to vehicle emissions to inability to walk more than 500 feet unassisted. A physician or registered nurse has to determine that the condition is serious enough to be eligible for the parking placard, which disabled drivers get for free from the Department of Licensing.

With a handicapped placard, drivers can legally park for free in any public street parking, including metered parking, or in designated handicapped parking spaces.

“In parts of the state where on-street parking is expensive or at a premium, placards usually have a lot of value,” Olson says.

In some parts, it can even be nefarious — Olson says some people have gone as far as stealing or counterfeiting placards to get the best or free parking. But most abusers are friends or family members of disabled drivers who use the placards illegally, with or without their knowledge, or people who use their own expired placards.

“By far [the abuse in Spokane] is people using someone else’s placard, whether it’s innocent or not,” Quintrall says.

Quintrall says identifying phony placards isn’t cut-and-dry — the appearance of the placards isn’t very uniform (they can vary by placard type, state or date issued), people get crafty with concealing expiration dates, and license numbers and some disabilities are invisible to the naked eye. Parking enforcement officers often have to confront handicapped parkers about their disabilities.

Handicapped parking abuse can cost the city parking revenues, and can cost other drivers if the city raises parking rates to compensate for what it’s losing to people parking for free, Olson says. Seattle estimates that disabled parking abuse costs the city $1.4 million annually. Quintrall says her department is looking into the cost of the abuse in downtown Spokane. Although Spokane probably doesn’t see as much of a deficit as Seattle, she says handicapped parking abuse still makes a mark on downtown.

“The whole purpose of metered parking is flow,” Quintrall says. “If we clog up the downtown core with handicap parking, that hurts the stores. … We need to keep commerce flowing.” 

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