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It's time for a crackdown on abusers of disabled placards

Los Angeles needs to take tough action, and California should at least require that the drivers get a doctor's signature every two years. Physicians could be more discriminating too.

January 29, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • In Los Angeles, there are six times as many residents with placards as there are parking meters.
In Los Angeles, there are six times as many residents with placards as there… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

Call them cretins, barbarians — whatever you like. I'm with you. But there are two very good reasons many California drivers abuse disabled placards when they park their vehicles.

First, it saves them a lot of money.

Second, the chance of getting caught is next to nil.

My Wednesday column on the subject has drawn hundreds of responses from readers who have disabilities but struggle to find parking because of all the cheaters, and there were scores of people offering their own evidence of abuse.

"I have seen a woman in four-inch stilettoes park with a placard and run into a gym for exercise," wrote Stuart Schnell of Alhambra.

No doubt, lots of folks are illegally using placards issued to disabled relatives, some of whom may no longer be above ground. Others may have abused the application process, forging signatures, faking conditions or finding a friendly co-conspirator with a medical license.

But to be fair, spotting cheaters can sometimes be tricky.

"Not everyone who has a placard has an illness you can see VISIBLY," wrote a Hawthorne reader who has diabetes and peripheral neuropathy.

Fair enough. But let me ask a question, and I don't mean for it to sound insensitive.

Why should people with placards get free parking? And why should they be exempt from time limits?

As it stands now, all you need is a placard and you can park for free at any meter for as long as you like, even if the posted limit is one hour.

The policy invites abuse, especially in areas like downtown Los Angeles, where metered parking runs as high as $4 an hour and a garage can cost $30 a day. It also cheats merchants of clients who can't find parking spots, robs meter revenue from cities and makes it harder for the rest of us to find parking.

UCLA professor Donald Shoup said a study of a single downtown L.A. street found a loss of $477 to the city — in just one day — because 81% of the spaces were occupied by cars with placards.

Ever since reader Cris Lombardi pointed out to me that placards are like confetti on Bunker Hill, I've been noticing blocks where every vehicle has one. On Thursday morning, 12 of the 14 spaces near the Museum of Contemporary Art had disabled placards, yet I didn't see any driver exit a vehicle with crutches, a cane or wheelchair.

One healthy-looking woman told me she'd had her placard since a motorcycle accident "six or seven years ago." Two women told me to mind my own business. Another one, I'd say about 30 years old, told me she was born with a back problem.

"I'm blanking on it right now," she said when I asked about the condition. It begins with an "S," she said.

Scoliosis?

"Yes, that's it."

She then walked — quite briskly — to the county courthouse, two blocks away, where she works as a clerk. If she's got a bad back, wouldn't it make more sense to park in the lot at the courthouse? It would if this was really about her back. But I'm guessing it's more about free parking.

One reason there's so much abuse is that the California Department of Motor Vehicles automatically reissues the blue, permanent placards every two years whether a driver asks for renewal or not. (A temporary one, which is red, has to be renewed every six months). The permanent ones really are permanent. No need to see a doctor ever again to recertify the need. Last year, the DMV sent out 2.1 million placards. In Los Angeles, there are about six times as many residents with placards as there are parking meters.

At the very least, shouldn't drivers have to get a doctor's signature every two years?

"Disabled placards should not be an automatic lifetime benefit," said David Marsh, an attorney and neighbor of mine who's disabled.

And doctors could certainly be more discriminating. Jerome Greenberg, an internist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said he frequently turns down patients whose conditions call for more exercise, not less. "If you're overweight," he said, "the farther away you park, the better."

Although placards are issued and controlled by the DMV, local officials don't have to sit on their hands while scammers operate right under their noses.

In San Francisco, city transit officials confiscated 680 placards two years ago in a crackdown on abuse. L.A.'s Department of Transportation, meanwhile, wrote 11 citations last year for placard abuse. And while San Francisco officials are now planning a push for statewide reforms that give cities more control, L.A. transportation chief Jaime de la Vega said his department is "tracking different cities" to see what they're up to.

Is it too much to ask that L.A. lead the way rather than wait for someone else to figure it out?

When I called the Sacramento office of state Sen. Kevin De Leon, who represents downtown L.A., his staff checked to see if their district office had fielded complaints on the matter. It hadn't, but the downtown staffers themselves had gripes about how so many cars with placards tie up spaces all day.

On Friday, De Leon's staff said he plans to introduce legislation that would end automatic renewals of permanent placards and require medical certification.

That's a start, but it comes up short.

There needs to be a crackdown on medical professionals who are easy touches for placards. And even a legitimate placard shouldn't entitle someone to park for free all day.

The point wouldn't be to punish the genuinely disabled. I'd be for using some of the additional meter revenue to make life easier for them by fixing cracked sidewalks, improving cutaways and creating a space or two on every block for exclusive use by disabled drivers.

And the minimum fine of $250 for placard abuse ought to be tripled, and second-time offenders should have their cars impounded.

Third-time offenders? I'm open to public flogging.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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