Sunday, December 14, 2008

Connecticut changing accessible parking permit policies after so much abuse

From The New York Times:

After years of complaints that Connecticut’s system for handicapped parking permits is riddled with abuse, officials are proposing some changes: Doing away with the multiple and lifetime permits that are often used illegally.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles is planning to ask the 2009 General Assembly to approve wholesale changes in the program, making it more like the programs in other states.

The changes would require permit holders to periodically renew their applications, and would require families to return permits after a disabled person dies, said William Seymour, a spokesman for the department.

“There’s a lot of good things in there,” David Hicks, chairman of the Commission on Disabilities of the City of New Haven, said of recommendations made by the motor vehicle department.

Connecticut, Idaho and Iowa are the only three states in the country that issue lifetime parking permits for the disabled. These permits, many activists for the disabled say, are often used by relatives or friends after the handicapped person has died, leaving fewer parking spaces for people who really need them.

In Connecticut, by some estimates, there are tens of thousands of handicapped permits now being used by people who do not need them.

The co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, State Senator Donald J. DeFronzo, a New Britain Democrat, is a strong supporter of changing the state’s current system. But he warned that any proposal with a big price tag was likely to have serious trouble at a time when the state is projecting billions of dollars in deficits.

In 2008, legislation calling for changes in the program was doomed after DMV officials estimated the plan would cost an additional $1.1 million a year, partially because of the extra personnel needed to handle the renewals.

“It does come down to a financial issue and this year is going to be very tight,” said Mr. DeFronzo. “If it can be done without major expenditures, it has a chance.”

Mr. Hicks agrees. “Everything bumps into the budget at this point.”

State officials are trying to estimate costs for the plan to issue six-year parking permits that would be renewed along with a disabled person’s driver’s license or identification card.

Mr. Seymour said that change would be part of a “massive computer modernization that is now under way” at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But Mr. Hicks said that several significant recommendations made in the department’s report on handicapped parking would not cost a lot.

One proposal would halt the state’s practice of giving two handicapped parking placards to any disabled person who asks, as long as he or she qualifies for a permit.

The report from the motor vehicles department said, “It appears that a large percentage of the misuse cases are occurring with customers who have obtained a second permit which is now being misused by other family members.”

But Mr. Seymour said department officials were reluctant to stop the practice without legislative approval. “We’re not sure the entire handicapped community would be happy with this,” he said.

Another relatively inexpensive change would be to set up a computer system that would allow a check of handicapped permit holders against death certificates issued by the state Department of Public Health.

“We’re looking to have that done within the next two months,” Mr. Seymour said.

The reform plan calls for dramatically increasing fines and penalties for abuse of the laws, but advocates for the disabled said the proposal did not address how the state would enforce the new rules.

“You can make penalties as high as you want, but if you don’t have enforcement, it won’t make any difference,” Mr. DeFronzo said.

The local police seem to do a good job of enforcing handicapped parking laws on public streets, he said, but they do not usually patrol private parking lots at shopping malls and stores where many of the violations occur.

Some communities in other states have pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines by tough enforcement of handicapped parking laws, Mr. Hicks said.

Allowing Connecticut municipalities to keep fines from such violations, Mr. DeFronzo said, could serve as a major incentive for enforcement of the handicapped parking permit laws.