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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Growing focus on handicapped-parking abuse in Seattle needs firmer legal steps

Dick Thorsen is dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease and now  wheel-chair bound, though he's still able to drive in his ramp-enabled van. But he's getting increasingly angry at "non-thinking social morons," drivers with no apparent handicaps who hog handicapped-parking spots in downtown Seattle.

 

"A lot of good my handicapped placard does me since nine times out of 10 times, I can't find an unoccupied handicapped-parking spot," says Thorsen. "And when I hang around waiting for someone to leave, I see obviously non-handicapped persons get in their cars and drive away."

 

Thorsen promises to start a campaign, in the time he has remaining, "to marshal volunteer forces to shame these scofflaws. I'm smart enough to mount a statewide enforcement strategy to curtail these selfish actions."

 

There is a growing irritation at what is seen as "as tremendous amount of abuse" of handicapped placards issued by the state and the sense that the increasing cost of parking in downtown Seattle is leading to illegal use of the placards.

 

Thorsen sent me an email last week after running across a column on the Internet that I did in early 2011 that was aimed at highlighting what actions have been taken, and what hasn't been done, to address the placard-abuse problem..

 

I noted in the column that Seattle parking officials observed that "the tremendous amount of abuse of these placards limits access to legitimate placard holders and other parkers." Not to mention lost dollars for the City of Seattle

 

And reaction of those like Thorsen, as well as ordinary citizens who are merely irritated on behalf of the handicapped, has led to efforts on the part of the City of Seattle to consider seeking action by the Legislature. As yet the City Council hasn't been able to reach accord with various stakeholders on what form the suggested legislation should take.

 

But a key step toward agreement on a proposal to the Legislature may come Monday when Seattle City Council representatives meet with the head of the Governor's Commission on Disability Issues and Employment, an entity Seattle officials view as an essential partner in any effort to get tougher legislation.

 

Toby Olson, executive secretary of the commission, says he began meetings with Seattle officials earlier this year on finding solutions to reduce the abuse of disability parking placards and strengthen enforcement for disability parking violations.

 

Seattle officials say they are confident about an agreement that will lead to a bill in the 2013 legislature, but that any proposal must take cognizance of state budget constraints.

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Disabled citizens are entitled to park at not only parking spots reserved for the handicapped, but also city-operated paid parking spots without charge. City officials estimate that 40 percent of downtown and First Hill parking spaces are occupied by vehicles displaying handicapped-parking placards.

 

"The police department and state transportation people "estimate that as many as 50 percent of the placards are being illegally used," City Councilman Tim Burgess told me for the 2011 column, noting that amounts to 20 percent of the total parking spots in those areas.

 

State law makes it illegal for anyone but the person to whom the state permit and placard are issued to use placard, tabs, or license plates if the disabled person is not in the vehicle. "You can't let your friends or family borrow them for their own use," advises the state website.

 

Over the past year, the Seattle Department of Transportation has been working with stakeholders, including the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, on putting together a plan that could be submitted to the 2013 Legislature for action.

 

SDOT and the DisAbilities Commission agree on most steps to address the problem, though the commission disagrees with shortening to four hours the time a vehicle using a handicapped placard can park downtown.

 

Interestingly, one of the issues both the city agency and the commission agree on is that the law needs to be more strict with physicians who issue the placards.

 

The Seattle Police Department says that many physicians distribute parking placards "for reasons that may not comply with state criteria" and a key suggestion is adding the name of the issuing physician on each placard.

 

Another person who ran across my column on the Internet sent me an email some months ago saying he did a test with his own doctor following knee surgery from which he explained he is "now walking without discomfort."

 

"I asked my doctor if I could get one of those permits for disability parking. She smiled wryly and said 'well..hmmmm...I suppose you qualify'. WHAT! I can walk without trouble and it is that easy to get a permit for phantom knee pain that was corrected months ago?"

 

City of Seattle, in fact, is apparently asking the King County Medical Association to admonish members about the integrity role in issuing handicapped permits.

 

Interestingly, ala Dick Thorsen's suggestion of mustering volunteers, the use of volunteers to patrol downtown areas in search of handicapped-parking abusers is already legal as a result of legislation a few years ago. Cities in nearly two dozen other states have already adopted a version of using volunteers to help address the problem.

 

In some places, trained volunteers are authorized to issue citations for infractions. But the commission also suggested the volunteers could record the license plate numbers of cars displaying expired placards, or operated by obviously non-handicapped drivers.

 

The idea of using volunteers and authorizing them to issue citations for illegal use of handicapped placards was discussed last fall, but City Council representatives were advised by the city's legal department that further legislation would first be necessary. 

 

For sure the commission and City Department of Transportation agree increased enforcement and higher penalties are essential to curbing abuse, and imposition of harsher penalties, particularly for those caught using a placard issued to someone who has since died.

 

Noting that Seattle police report that finding placards being used that are registered to a person who is deceased is "one of the top methods of abuse," the commission says unequivocally the cars of such drivers should be impounded.

 

The Seattle City Council obviously has much on its plate, including budget issues and things like the proposed new Sodo arena. But the issue of stealing handicapped-parking spots, which is of course what cheaters are doing, deserves to be looked at long enough to frame a legislative proposal since the legislators will only act if they think it's important enough for Seattle to ask.

 

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