Proposed legislation that would set the stage for imposing tough new penalties on those who "steal" city parking spots by illegally using parking permits issued to disabled drivers is increasingly likely to be approved by the 2013 Legislature.
The bill, HB1946, would create a "work group" composed of representatives of the State Department of Health, local governments and disabled-citizen advocacy groups to produce a strategy designed to curb the "tremendous amount of abuse" of the disabled- parking placards.
Disabled citizens are entitled to park at not only parking spaces reserved for the handicapped, but also in city-operated paid-parking spaces without charge. Seattle officials estimated, for a column I did on this topic two years ago, that 40 percent of downtown and First Hill parking spaces are occupied by vehicles displaying handicapped-parking placards.
Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, now a mayoral candidate, told me for that 2011 column that the city's police department and state transportation people "estimate that as many as 50 percent of the placards are being illegally used," representing 20 percent of the parking spots in the downtown area.
The measure before the 2013 Legislature made it out of the House Transportation Committee last Friday and now awaits referral to the full House for a vote and, if approved by the representatives, will then go to the State Senate.
Toby Olson, executive secretary of the Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, says the filing of the bill, sponsored by Olympia's two house members, both Democrats, followed nearly a year of meetings with Seattle officials. The goal was to find solutions to reduce the abuse of disability parking placards while strengthening enforcement for violations.
Once approved by both houses and signed by the governor, the bill would immediately require handicapped parking placards to prominently display an expiration date. Using an expired permit would result in a $250 fine.
The second phase of the bill would establish the work group, whose goal would be to add more far-reaching provisions. That group would begin meeting in August and deliver its final strategic plan to the 2014 Legislature.
"There is no shortage of ideas for the work group to consider," says Olson "But there are consequences to some of the ideas. They'll need to come up with ideas that are actually workable and take cognizance of state budget constraints."
The bill makes some specific recommendations to the work group and an interesting one is to explore the extent to which medical professionals, who must certify the disability of those seeking a permit card and auto placard, are aiding the abuse.
The bill would require that the strategic plan include "oversight measures" to ensure that parking placards and special license plates for the disabled are being properly issued.
The strategic plan would provide for a random review by a volunteer panel of medical professionals of placard issuance and possible sanctions against medical professionals for repeated improper issuance of disabled parking placards
The Seattle Police Department says that many physicians distribute parking placards "for reasons that may not comply with state criteria" and a key suggestion is adding the name of the issuing physician on each placard.
A Seattle resident who ran across my previous column on the Internet sent me an email some months ago saying he did a test with his own doctor following knee surgery from which he explained he was "now walking without discomfort."
"I asked my doctor if I could get one of those permits for disability parking. She smiled wryly and said 'well..hmmmm...I suppose you qualify'. WHAT! I can walk without trouble and it is that easy to get a permit for phantom knee pain that was corrected months ago?"
Of course, blaming the disabled-parking abuses mostly on doctors would be unfair in an environment where use of other people's permits or using the placards of those who are now deceased is suspected of being rampant, driven in part probably from the ever-increasing cost of parking.
And while the City of Seattle is looking to the legislature to devise ways to address the abuse, which also brings lost revenue for the cities, some tools are already available.
One is the use of trained volunteers authorized to issue citations for infractions, which was approved by previous legislation in this state some years ago.
Some Seattle officials expressed concern that such use of volunteers might lead to confrontations with offending parkers.
To which I suggested to one such concerned official that use of volunteers who were large as well as intimidating in appearance would likely take care of the concern.
For sure the representatives of the disabled and the city agree increased enforcement and imposition of harsher penalties are essential, particularly for those caught using a placard issued to someone who has since died.
The issue of stealing handicapped-parking spots, which is of course what cheaters are doing since they are depriving cities of revenue in addition to depriving handicapped drivers of parking places, deserves the attention it's apparently finally going to get from the Legislature.