We've all seen it and silently cursed: Some guy slaps a disabled parking placard on the rearview mirror, leaps out and walks briskly to the store.
He may fake a little limp for a few steps before breaking into full stride.
Parking cheats are not the world's biggest problem, but they do frustrate the daily lives of many motorists who respect the law and play by the rules.
The people hurt the most are those who truly need a convenient spot because of their disability. But they're shut out because a cheater has filched the spot.
Meanwhile, the observant public becomes more cynical and sours on helping the disabled.
Full disclosure: I've used a placard for a few years because age has worsened a childhood disability.
So when State Auditor Elaine Howle recently issued a 70-page report on illegal use of placards and the DMV's failure to crack down, I said it's about time.
"The DMV, in several areas, is not really doing a good job managing this program," Howle told me.
For one thing, she said, it isn't sufficiently examining motorists' applications for the placards. For another, it isn't conducting nearly enough sting operations to nab abusers.
The DMV didn't get defensive. It basically acknowledged shortcomings, said it was trying harder and promised to do better.
There are 2.9 million Californians with disability placards or plates. There's no fee for permanent placards, and they're automatically renewed every two years.
Placards and plates entitle the holders to free parking at downtown meters, and time limits don't apply. These perks understandably irritate many motorists.
Here are some eye-opening things the auditor found:
A doctor’s certification is required to obtain a placard or plate, but 73% of the applications that were reviewed “did not fully describe the disability.” Also, 18% of the doctors’ signatures did not match those on file with state health boards. The auditor questioned whether 260,000 placards issued over a three-year period were valid.
A lot of placards that exist were issued to people now dead. They haven’t been canceled. The DMV catches many by checking state death records, but could identify thousands more by also examining federal data. The auditor figures at least 35,000.
As of June, there were 26,000 people age 100 or older holding placards, based on DMV data. But there are only an estimated 8,000 centenarians living in California.
There is no limit on the number of replacement placards a holder can receive if one is “lost” or “stolen.” Auditors found several people who had received 16 or more placards over a three-year period.
"That should raise a red flag," Howle said. "We went on Craigslist and saw some placards for sale."
The auditor made these recommendations:
Require the DMV to work with state health boards in examining placard requests.
Force the DMV to check federal death records so it can cancel the placards of dead people.
Greatly increase sting operations.
Allow parking meter enforcers to access state placard data so they can nab cheaters on the spot. Now they must go through sworn law enforcement who are often too busy handling serious crime.
Margaret Jakobson-Johnson, advocacy director for Disability Rights California, said she generally agrees with the auditor.
But I'd add some things most legislators wouldn't want to go near because disability activists would probably howl.
I'd have two tiers of placards: An "A" placard would be for people who need to park next to a crosschecked space so they can unload a wheelchair or scooter. And only they could park there — not people with a "B" placard using a cane or crutches or with a serious lung or heart problem. They'd have a blue space with no adjacent crosscheck.
The "A" placard holder could still park downtown for free because a meter often is inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. But the "B" holder would need to feed the meter one time with a credit card. Both "A" and "B" parkers would have a four-hour time limit.
I'd require a $25 fee for obtaining a placard. And I'd make holders reapply every four years. The fee would help beef up enforcement.
Other states have such requirements. It helps remove incentives for cheating.
We're a little too timid about this in California. Maybe we're intimidated by political correctness.
One legislator who wasn't is former Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), who requested the audit. But first he tried and failed to pass legislation to correct the abuses.
"I was directly threatened by advocacy groups telling me, 'Mike, if you pursue this, we'll wheel into the committee so many people you'll look terrible,'" he recalled.
"Lots of lawmakers respond to that pressure. But I feel like it's the disabled I'm working for. They're having their spots taken away from them."
The most blatant abuses seem to be at sporting events or rock concerts, where young people borrow Grandma's placard, park in a disabled spot and sprint to the event. I've seen it many times at Sacramento Kings basketball games.
"People tell me 'We don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater,'" Gatto said. "But I tell them we've got to do something about the dirty bathwater. Every year those peasants with pitchforks are getting more agitated."
Legislators should summon some courage. And disability groups should demand it for their own benefit.
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