A disabled parking placard is displayed in a car window parked on J Street in downtown Sacramento in 2012. Drivers have been complaining for years that every other downtown parking spot seems to be taken by a car with a blue disabled placard on the rearview mirror. Now, city officials in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities have joined the chorus, saying the placard perk is clogging downtowns, harming businesses, cutting into city revenues and making it harder for truly disabled people to park near their destinations. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file
A disabled parking placard is displayed in a car window parked on J Street in downtown Sacramento in 2012. Drivers have been complaining for years that every other downtown parking spot seems to be taken by a car with a blue disabled placard on the rearview mirror. Now, city officials in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities have joined the chorus, saying the placard perk is clogging downtowns, harming businesses, cutting into city revenues and making it harder for truly disabled people to park near their destinations. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file

Back-Seat Driver

Tony Bizjak writes about traffic and travel in the Sacramento region

Back-Seat Driver

Downtown parkers seeing red over sea of blue disabled placards

By Tony Bizjak

tbizjak@sacbee.com

August 30, 2015 02:23 PM

Walk down any street near the state Capitol and you’ll see plenty of blue disabled placards in the windows of parked cars. On some blocks, by the city’s count, they hang in more than 70 percent of the vehicles.

Under state law, those blue placards are solid gold in downtowns across the state. They allow a driver to park all day at any meter for free. The problem is, some of those drivers are not disabled. The misuse of placards is not new. But officials say it is growing.

Sacramento Public Works Director Jerry Way says city officials don’t know for sure what percentage of placarded cars involve misuse, but their hunch is a lot. “People with real mobility needs aren’t getting spaces,” he said.

A list of medical professionals that includes not only doctors but chiropractors, optometrists, nurse midwives and physician assistants can sign the DMV form declaring someone disabled, a process that city officials contend is often too easy. In addition, people often obtain placards from disabled relatives.

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Misuse means that parking spots aren’t available for people who need to get in, do business or shop, and get out. It also keeps cities from collecting meter revenues for street, sidewalk and traffic control projects. That’s an issue for Sacramento with the new arena opening next year, an arena the city is helping finance.

The sea of blue definitely drives some of our readers crazy. One emailed saying he sees one expensive car downtown with a disabled placard and a license plate frame that reads, “I’d rather be running.” That driver seems to walk fine. “I guess after he makes the car payment he cannot (afford to) pay to park!”

City officials had one code officer assigned to placard duty. But the five citations ($250 penalty) the city issued for misused placards downtown in July barely puts a dent in the problem. The city has now assigned a second code officer to placard duty and has plans to add more.

The Department of Motor Vehicles stepped up its statewide enforcement as well last year. DMV officials say they will have investigators in Sacramento this week and next issuing tickets and confiscating misused placards.

City officials here and elsewhere are calling for state law changes to reduce abuse. But that is tricky. Recent proposals included provisions that would limit use by legitimately disabled people. Disabled advocates oppose that. They argue that requiring the disabled to pay at meters and adhere to time limits may violate federal accessibility laws.

Disabled people run into many more difficulties feeding meters and getting to and from places in a timely manner, said Disability Rights California advocacy director Margaret Johnson.

“I am not clear on how big the problem is,” Johnson said. She contends that cities should put more effort into enforcement to see what that accomplishes before pushing for restrictions that may infringe on truly disabled persons. She suggested increasing the fine amount as well. “If more people get dinged, it seems like the problem would go down.”

Sacramento’s Jerry Way said cities have not given up on a law change. For now, though, there doesn’t seem to be a champion or a clear strategy.

Meanwhile, if you see what you think is placard misuse, you can contact the city’s Disabled Placard Abuse Hotline at 916-808-5563.