Drivers Abusing Rules On Disabled Parking

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Washington Post reporter Annys Shin about the abuse of handicapped parking stickers and spaces by those who are not in need of them. There's a market for stolen tags — some yielding $50 or more.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In today's Washington Post, reporter Annys Shin writes about a parking taboo: an able-bodied driver using a handicapped tag to park in a handicapped spot. Maybe the tag belongs to a sibling, a spouse or a parent who isn't in the car, but the tag remains, and the temptation to park close to the door is simply too enticing.

Well, apparently, it's a big and growing problem in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere across the country. That's in large part where the taboo comes in. Law-enforcement officials consider it bad policy to challenge potential scofflaws for fear of offending someone who might well be within his or her rights to use the tag.

I'm joined now by Annys Shin. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ANNYS SHIN (Reporter, The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And tell us how this came about. It all began with a story in the Post, when a woman complained about her car being towed.

Ms. SHIN: Yes. Martena Clinton, a woman who resides in Maryland, had an epic story of her car disappearing for 24 hours after the Secret Service moved it during an appearance by President Obama at the Washington Convention Center. And one, small detail in the story attracted a lot of attention - which is that she was parked in a handicapped parking spot, using her husband's handicapped-parking placard.

SIEGEL: And he was not in the car?

Ms. SHIN: He was not there, and she herself is not disabled.

SIEGEL: To put it mildly, Washington Post readers did not sympathize with her after learning that.

Ms. SHIN: Absolutely not. In fact, we were flooded with emails and calls about this - people who've personally experienced abuse, people who admitted that they knew somebody who had been using their diseased parents' placard for many years.

SIEGEL: Well, you looked into this and, if fact, you've found that this is a problem, not just in Washington, D.C., but elsewhere - that people use handicapped tags that belonged to, for example, now-deceased family members or people who aren't in the car at that time.

Ms. SHIN: Yes. The temptation is very much there for the family member who is tasked with driving the disabled person around. The placard hangs in the car, and it's very easy to just keep using it, even when the person who needs it isn't there.

What we found was that, at least in our jurisdiction in Maryland, the number of placards that have been issued has increased dramatically. In Maryland, this past year, it went up nearly 40 percent. There was no explanation for why there are so many more placards in circulation, but this has happened in other parts of the country. California, between 1997 and 2007, they found 131 percent increase in the number of disabled placards issued. Other localities are taking notice of this.

SIEGEL: You had some numbers in your story today. One of them was from Massachusetts. I think another from Seattle. What did they find?

Ms. SHIN: Yes. So in Massachusetts - this was already three years ago, in 2007 -the inspector general in Massachusetts did an investigation in Boston, and found that out of nearly 1,000 placards that they observed, about a third appeared to be in use by someone other than the handicapped person, and 49 were registered to deceased individuals. Nine had been renewed after the person was dead. In 2004, Seattle also did their own research, and found that more than 75 percent of disabled placards were being used improperly.

SIEGEL: But the problem here seems to be that the traffic warden or the police officer who might be tempted to ask about one of these placards - you could always find somebody who has a disability that's not entirely evident.

Ms. SHIN: Right. And this is partly why the abuse of placards is rampant. It's really difficult to police them. The police officers told me that they're basically reluctant to approach people and have them prove that they are disabled.

There have been systems designed to make it easier for police. So, for instance, Virginia issues an ID card that you're supposed to carry with you and be able to furnish upon request. And this might be more of a lack of will; I don't know. Police may be just reluctant even to ask for the identification card. But that's supposed to be there as a polite means of verifying somebody's disability.

SIEGEL: Well, Annys Shin, thank you very much for talking with us about this.

Ms. SHIN: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Annys Shin, a reporter for the Washington Post.

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