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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Handicap That Allows Parking Isn't Always Obvious

Some limitations, such as heart or lung disease, are not readily visible, so it can be hard to tell if a person has a legitimate need for the privilege.

May 06, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Now here's something that gets a lot of drivers really steamed: It's Sunday afternoon at the beach, people seeking parking spaces are circling like sharks, and a healthy-looking chap zips into the parking zone for the handicapped, hangs a blue-and-white placard in his windshield and hops out.

In one case, reader John Fry wrote, the offending driver and his companion proceeded to take bicycles out of their car and ride off down the beach.

"I had polio as a child, and it's obvious to anyone why I have a handicapped card," Fry wrote. But "what debilitating handicap might a bicycle rider possess?"

Any number, actually, said Armando E. Botello, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Drivers or passengers can qualify for parking spaces reserved for the handicapped if they have obvious problems such as the loss of one or both legs, or a condition that requires the use of a cane, walker or wheelchair.

But people with certain diseases of the lungs or heart also can qualify -- and some might well be on doctors' orders to ride their bikes or go walking, he said.

Those with temporary disabilities can apply for placards to hang in the car in which they are riding or driving. The cards are good for six months. Patients with permanent disabilities can get special license plates.

"It's really hard to tell just by looking at a person," Botello said. "There are many disabilities that can qualify a person for a placard or a plate."

Los Angeles sees plenty of cases in which a driver has illegally parked in a zone reserved for the handicapped, said Brian Williams, a deputy mayor for transportation issues whose last job, as a lawyer in the city attorney's office, involved prosecuting violations of rules covering parking for the handicapped.

But, Williams said, he just as frequently prosecuted outraged drivers who had assaulted people they mistakenly thought were using fraudulent handicapped cards. "Not every disability is something you can see," said Williams, who prosecuted a notorious case a few years ago in which members of the UCLA football team illegally parked in reserved spaces.

"We had a number of cases of battery," in which drivers with plates for the handicapped got into fights with people who thought they shouldn't have the privilege.

Just before Christmas two years ago, Williams said, he learned of such matters firsthand. The 6-foot-4 attorney, who looks like someone who could have played college football (he was in the band), tore his Achilles tendon and had to go about on crutches for several weeks.

On Christmas Eve, he pulled into a space reserved for the handicapped in Old Town Pasadena, a temporary parking placard displayed prominently.

"A lady sees me from the chest up -- this big, tall guy, getting out of a car -- and she starts yelling, 'You should be ashamed of yourself,' " he said. "Then she saw me hobbling away on crutches and apologized."

But what about people who really do scam the system? A colleague reports that his dad, not disabled, has tags identifying him as handicapped.

A woman was seen popping out of a Mercedes-Benz at a Starbucks in the San Fernando Valley with high heels, a brisk walk and a tag for the handicapped that some speculated might have been her mother's.

Reader Jim Barry of Huntington Beach wants to know if there is an 800 number to call to report such suspected scofflaws.

Afraid not -- in California at least. Botello, of the DMV, recommends reporting suspected violations to the police.

The DMV does, however, point out that it is illegal to use another person's placard, forge a doctor's signature, provide false information to obtain a placard, alter a placard or lend your placard to another person.

Violators risk fines and imprisonment -- along with loss of the placard or license plate.

Among the people eligible for such placards -- as passengers, of course -- are those who are legally blind. To qualify, such passengers must have eyesight of less than 20-200 in both eyes, even with glasses. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is legal to drive in California as long as one eye sees better than 20-200 with glasses.

Reader Judy Rubin points out that such drivers do have trouble reading road signs, however, and wants to know what state highway officials plan to do about it.

"My suggestion would be that all north onramps would have a huge magenta arrow ... and all south onramps would have bright turquoise arrows," Rubin wrote.

"For those of us with difficulty reading those signs from a distance in spite of eyeglasses, it would be a tremendous help. We wouldn't hold up traffic as we try to switch lanes at the last minute because we couldn't see whether we had to be in the left or right lane."

Rubin suggests hot pink for the sign showing instances when more than one car may enter the freeway when the metered light is flashing green.

We asked Caltrans spokeswoman Deborah Harris whether road signs were indeed designed to be seen by people whose vision neared that 20-200 mark, but she said that they were not.

"There is no direct correlation between DMV vision requirements and Caltrans freeway signs," she said.

In other words, Harris said, it is assumed that if a person is licensed, he or she can see.

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