Violators avoiding tickets as need for disabled parking increases

Budget-struck Vancouver pares back enforcement, education

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Disabled parking permits

According to the Washington Department of Licensing's website, applicants for disabled parking permits, must have a licensed physician, licensed physician assistant, or licensed registered nurse practitioner verify they meet at least one of these criteria:

• You can't walk 200 feet without stopping to rest.

• Your ability to walk is severely limited.

• You're so severely disabled that you can't walk without the use of or assistance from a brace, cane, another person, prosthetic device, wheelchair, or other assistive device.

• You use portable oxygen.

• You're restricted by severe lung disease.

• You're impaired by severe cardiovascular disease or cardiac condition.

• You have a disability resulting from an acute sensitivity to automobile emissions which limits or impairs your ability to walk.

• You're legally blind and have limited mobility.

• You have acute sensitivity to light that can result in burning, blistering, swelling, and scarring of the skin.

Before she suffered a spinal cord injury 32 years ago, Connie Brittain pulled into a disabled parking spot. She figured she was entitled, given that she had two young children in tow.

Now that she drives a van equipped with a lift for her wheelchair, she knows better.

"Some people say, 'I only parked there for five minutes.' Ninety seconds is too long. There's going to be a person with a disability who needs it more than you," said Brittain, a 56-year-old Vancouver resident.

Although anyone who parks in a disabled spot without a blue placard risks a ticket, not many actually receive them these days. Enforcement and education efforts have gone by the wayside.

In 2008, 323 tickets were issued, a figure that dropped to 64 last year. City of Vancouver budget cuts in 2010 eliminated two of six parking enforcement positions, as well as a $63,000-a-

year program that empowered volunteers to write tickets for disabled parking violations, said Mike Merrill, the city's parking services manager.

Ralph Peabody, a former volunteer for the program, thinks that's a shame.

"I think it was a very worthwhile program," he said. "I had many people say how thankful they were to see us." And, he pointed out, as residents get older, more and more are going to need access to disabled parking.

State Department of Licensing records show that about 17,000 people with Vancouver mailing addresses have placards or license plates enabling them to park in specially designated spaces or on the street for free, even in metered spots. There are 238,690 active licensed drivers with Vancouver mailing addresses.

"The number of handicapped parking spots has stayed the same, but the number of parking permits has increased," said disability advocate Jesse Magaña, a 53-year-old Vancouver resident paralyzed from the chest down. That makes enforcement more important than ever, he said.

But disabled parking enforcement can be a touchy subject. Those with placards might not have a visible disability -- or they might be using one that is expired or belongs to a relative.

Brittain heard every possible excuse able-bodied people could come up with when she taught a two-hour class that parking offenders could take to reduce their $250 fine to $125. The class hasn't been offered since the nonprofit organization DisAbility Resources of Southwest Washington closed in 2011. Brittain was a community services coordinator for the resource center.

"There are rare occasions people abuse grandma's placard," Brittain said. "But not every person (with a placard) uses a wheelchair. A lot of able-bodied people might get angry to see a person who can walk who has a placard. But they might not realize that person has a heart issue, breathing problems or mobility issues."

Those are all valid justifications for a disabled parking placard, according to the state Department of Licensing. Applicants must get a signature from their doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner.

The potential for abuse is higher where demand for parking is greater than supply, which is why the city of Seattle regularly surveys on-street parking. In some downtown Seattle areas, 20 percent to 60 percent of cars display disabled parking placards, said Mary Catherine Snyder, a parking strategist for Seattle's transportation department.

"It's difficult for us to specifically identify abuse," Snyder said. Sometimes the permit has expired or belongs to someone who has died, or it's a legitimate permit but it's being used by a relative. "It's a complicated enforcement effort."

Around here, Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver probably have the highest demand for parking matched by vigorous enforcement.

College campuses are notorious for overcrowded parking lots. In 1999, a group of UCLA football players gained notoriety for citing bogus medical problems to obtain disabled parking placards.

Yet campus officials in Clark County said it's rare to see fraudulent use of disabled parking placards.

On the WSU Vancouver campus, parking officers wrote three warnings and 13 tickets to drivers parking in disabled spots without placards between Jan. 1, 2012, and Feb. 12, 2013. That's out of a total of 1,900 tickets, said Katrina Long, WSU Vancouver's parking supervisor.

On a few occasions, a student has reported someone using a relative's parking placard, said Ken Pacheco, Clark's director of security. In those cases, a polite note is usually enough to end the behavior, he said.

"It depends on people snitching people off," he said. "If I see someone pulling into a disabled parking space, I don't know what the person's medical problem could be. But if it's an obviously hale and hearty young person running into a building, I'll ask for a placard and ID card."

Disability advocates argue that addressing placard abuse should be done in a way that doesn't hurt legitimate placard holders.

The Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities recommends shortening the renewal period from five years to three years, and requiring placard holders to renew in person at a licensing office. The commission also recommends requiring those whose placards are stolen to file a police report in order to obtain a replacement.

Those suggestions make sense to Brittain. Meantime, even if local enforcement has fallen off, she said all is not lost.

"People with disabilities can advocate for themselves," Brittain said. "If they themselves see someone who doesn't have a placard or a disability, they can call the police."

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; http://www.twitter.com/col_trends;erin.middlewood@columbian.com.