When my doctor suggested I apply for a temporary handicapped-parking permit, my first reaction was: What, me disabled? But a severe hip ailment had made it painful to walk, even with a cane, and I would need to drive to medical and other appointments. So when my blue and white “disabled persons parking identification placard” arrived in the mail, I gratefully hung it from my rearview mirror and used it a few times. Then, as my mobility improved, I buried it in my glove compartment.
A few months later, I had to drive to an important all-day meeting in Cambridge. Hoping to avoid paying Harvard Square parking-garage ransom prices, I made several futile loops looking for a meter that allowed more than two hours. With the meeting about to start, I remembered my parking placard. This will just be a one-time thing, I told myself.
Miraculously, I found a parking spot and dodged the moral dilemma (to avoid future temptation, I later removed the placard from the car). Clearly, lots of able-bodied drivers have no such qualms. More than 406,000 Massachusetts residents possessed permanent or temporary placards at the end of 2014, a 20 percent jump over four years even as the state’s population grew by only about 3 percent. Placards entitle the holder to free parking without a time limit at most spaces in Massachusetts, including those with meters, not just designated handicapped spaces. While many drivers genuinely need the placards they’ve been issued, that free unlimited parking can be awfully tempting.
As a 2013 state report by Inspector General Glenn Cunha put it, “Since garage parking in downtown Boston costs between $5,000 and $6,000 a year, the meter exemption creates a substantial incentive for unauthorized drivers to abuse placards.” That report found widespread transgressions, including drivers using placards belonging to friends, relatives, and even the deceased.
On one busy downtown street, I recently counted 11 cars with placards at meters. At the risk of a middle-finger response or worse, I asked one driver who seemed quite physically able about his supposed handicap. This driver appeared not to meet placard criteria, which include inability to walk 200 feet without stopping to rest or requiring the assistance of another person, prosthetic aid, or other assistive device. The man explained he was just picking up his disabled mother (placards are issued to people, not vehicles). But that, of course, doesn’t explain why the same black SUV was at the same meter several hours later.
“We desperately want to stop placard abuse because it really impacts a person with disabilities’ life when someone takes up a parking space that person needs,” says Myra Berloff, director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability. “But how we get there is a very complicated issue.” Berloff belongs to a task force of state and city officials and others convened after the inspector general’s report. Though it has met only once, Berloff says the group will soon resume its review of current policies.
Meanwhile, the Registry of Motor Vehicles is also trying to grapple with the abuse issue. Next month, it plans to launch a statewide public information campaign about handicapped parking on 89 electronic billboards. The Registry is also developing a “how to say no” handout for placard holders, “primarily geared toward seniors so they clearly understand they need to say no if a family member wants to use their privileges,” explains RMV chief of staff Sara Lavoie.
Some localities have beefed up their own efforts. Waltham, for example, uses paid police details to smoke out placard scofflaws. Revenues from tickets more than cover program costs. But other jurisdictions have opted to strike more directly at what appears to be the biggest driver of abuse — the temptation of that free, unlimited parking.
Chicago, Baltimore, and Portland, Oregon, are among cities that have tried something even tougher: ending free handicapped parking at meters. Generally, they are switching to a two-tier system, where people who document that they are physically unable to reach a parking kiosk or feed a meter will have special placards that exempt them from paying, while all other placards will require drivers to pay meters and honor time limits. In Portland, the number of cars parking with placards plunged after the city ended free parking. And of the 510,000 people who applied for placards in Michigan, fewer than 2 percent had disabilities severe enough to qualify for the parking fee exemption.
In Massachusetts, legislative action would be needed to change the free parking system. While Berloff is open to considering the two-tier approach, she worries that it could adversely affect some disabled drivers, at least until better technology enables easier ways for them to pay to park. Meters are one thing, she notes, but what about spaces that require walking some distance to parking kiosks?
Cunha says whether it’s a two-tier or other approach, something must be done to curtail placard abuse. The truly disabled need those spaces. “This issue strikes a chord in people,” he says. “The general public wants to see that this type of abuse doesn’t happen.”
Some of the placard scofflaws caught during a 2013 sting:
> A Financial District restaurant owner using his father-in-law’s placard to hold a prime spot for his delivery vehicle
> A woman parked at Government Center displaying a placard that belonged to her grandmother — who lived in Georgia
> A director of compliance for a wealth management firm using a placard that belonged to a deceased priest