Saturday, August 28, 2010

Seattle works to stop abuse of disability parking hangtags

From the Seattle Times:

Jane Hell had staked out the man for months.

She knew his license number and his patterns. Every day, he'd park in the University District with a disability placard hanging from his rearview mirror and head to class on campus. The permit allowed him to park for free all day in one of the city's most congested areas.

It burned her up.

Hell, a parking-enforcement officer, knew the placard wasn't his. It didn't match his plates. But under city law, she could only ticket him once he was behind the wheel — because that proved he was the driver.

She knew he'd bolt if he saw her coming. So she hid behind a hedge. And waited.

Hell — yes, that's her real last name and yes, she's gotten flak for it on the job — first noticed the rampant abuse of disability placards when she was hired as a parking-enforcement officer in 2000. She'd walk the streets and see the permits on block after block.

"I thought, 'The majority of Seattle could not be disabled,' " she said. "There were a lot of young kids going to these cars."

But at the time, parking enforcement had no authority to cite for it. Only Seattle police officers could, but they were too busy to make it a priority, she said.

So Hell, along with William Edwards, director of the parking-enforcement division, pushed to get permission to write the tickets. By 2004, a select cadre of parking enforcers was monitoring the abuse and slapping violators with a $306 fine. The penalty is now $550.

About 371,500 people and organizations are authorized to use the placards statewide, according to the state Department of Licensing. Holders can park in designated disabled spaces as well as metered spots for free.

Licensed doctors, nurse practitioners or physician assistants must determine if a person meets one of the nine criteria specified in state law to get the parking privileges. For instance, a person is eligible if he or she uses portable oxygen or cannot walk 200 feet without stopping to rest.

Since parking enforcement formed its "disability placard task force," abuse has tapered, Hell said. She's been able to scratch several people off her "hot list."

Hell drives around in unmarked vehicles so people don't know she's coming. She also didn't want to be photographed for this story because she says she needs to stay undercover.

One day in 2005, she watched the man returning to his car on University Way. His eyes darted around for officers. As soon as he got in, Hell jumped out of the hedge.

"You got me," he said.

There is a certain thrill in catching these violators, she said.

"It's a good feeling when you see somebody in a wheelchair who says, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' "