Illegal Handicap Placard Abuse on the Rise in Los Angeles
Feb 20, 2012
When Hollywood cameraman and downtown LA resident Cris Lombardi is not working, he strolls throughout the city, taking pictures along the way. Lately he has been noticing something that struck him as peculiar. Many of the cars parked at meters had handicap placards. On one street, 80 percent of the cars had placards. Lombardi started jotting down his findings on paper as he continued walking down the street. He discovered that an average of 64 percent of the cars parked along six downtown blocks had placards.
Lombardi shared his findings in an email to LA Times reporter Steve Lopez. “Walking the same route every day, one begins to notice details,” he wrote. “On my walk up 4th Street from Hill to Olive, it dawned on me that … nearly all of the parked cars had handicap placards.”
According to Lombardi, the cars were parked at expired meters but they remained ticket-less for the whole day despite a one- or two-hour parking limit. Lombardi also noticed that cars parked on the surrounding streets also had placards. No one was seen getting in or out of a car with a placard, but he suspected that some of the drivers had no disabilities–which meant fewer spaces for drivers with and without disabilities.
One day Lopez accompanied Lombardi on a tour of Bunker Hill. Lopez soon noticed that Lombardi was clearly onto something. Eight out of the 10 cars parked along 4th Street all had placards. The street is on an incline, which would pose a challenge for someone with a disability.
The two men walked down Hope Street. All three of the cards parked on the east side of the street had placards. Lopez saw a man walking to a van with a temporary placard. He asked the guy about his disability. The man told Lopez he had a heart attack and drove away.
The men would find even more cars with placards. Six out of seven cars on 3rd Street all had placards, as did six of the first seven cars on Grand Street. Lopez even noticed placards in three cars across the street. What exactly was going on here?
Lopez set out to find out. He decided to stake out 4th Street and wait for the drivers to return to their cars so he could question them. He made phone calls while he waited, hoping to find an expert who could shed some light on the matter.
A few years ago, UCLA student Jonathan Williams staked out the intersection of 7th and Hope for a week and later reported his findings in a thesis. Williams recalled a driver who got out a van with a disabled placard, loaded boxes onto a cart and then descended a flight of stairs. Now a Seattle traffic consultant, Williams said that California drivers can park at a meter for free and for as long as they like if they have a placard. This makes it too easy for drivers to abuse placards in areas like downtown LA, where parking garage fees can range from $20 to $30.
According to Vito Scattaglia, Deputy Chief of Investigations for the state Department of Motor Vehicles, placard abuse “runs in the area of 30-40%.” That’s a lot of abuse in a state that issued over 200,000 disabled placards. Scattaglia added that a common scam among drivers is using placards belonging to someone else who legally obtained it. Another scam involves forging doctors’ signatures on placard applications.
It’s not yet known how much placard abuse is costing LA, but according to Jaime de la Vega of the Department of Transportation, $40 million was collected from the city’s 40,000 parking meters in 2011. The city can get substantial revenue from the downtown parking meters, where rates are higher, if they’re not being used by able-bodied people using placards to park for free.
Several cities in the nation have started charging placard holders to park, a move that requires state legislation in California and is met with reluctance from legislators, according to UCLA professor Donald Shoup. He added that the city of Capitola, near Santa Cruz, employs disabled military veterans to police placard abuse.
Placard abuse places an unfair burden on drivers with disabilities, forcing them to compete with freeloaders for parking spaces. Lopez spoke to area merchants who said that the parked cars hurt their business. On the evening of his stakeout, he got the chance to question some of the people who returned to their cars with the placards.
A woman getting into a Toyota said she worked at the state office and has respiratory problems. Another woman getting into a Scion claimed she was recovering from leg surgery. Two guys pulled to a parking meter in a placard-bearing Volkswagen. The driver started to put money into the meter but his passenger stopped him, saying something that was inaudible. The two men headed up the steep hill. When Lopez questioned which one had a disability, the passenger smirked and claimed he had a “heart condition.”
Lopez then saw a man limping toward his car. He worked at the state building. He said he had osteoarthritis and was considering getting a hip replacement. Lopez pointed out two parking lots that were closer to his office than the meter–where he parked for free the entire day.
“They’re very expensive,” the man said. No doubt his co-workers without placards know exactly how expensive it is.
As Lopez drove away, he saw a man walking down 4th street. Lopez started in his direction, pen and pad in hand. The man started trotting toward a car with a placard, jumped in and drove off, staring down Lopez as he did.