Too many stories, not enough spots

BY PETER G. CALLAS

It used to be that everyone loved to go Christmas shopping with me. Not because of my generosity and warm personality.

 I always got great parking.

But those days are long gone. Now, it’s almost impossible to find an open handicapped parking spot. And all too often, those spots are filled by people without disabilities.

I admit I haven’t done an exhaustive study of handicapped parking in New Jersey, but the little I know explains why I can never find an available spot.

In 1981, about 7,000 people had either a handicapped license or placard.

In March 2010 there were 430,312 placards in circulation. That doesn’t include handicapped plates! I’m still waiting for the state to provide that number.

This also doesn’t include people who receive temporary placards because they had surgery, are injured or even pregnant. The local police departments hand out those placards and nobody really knows how many of those are in use. Factor in people who don’t stop using them after they expire and the numbers pile up.

Of the placards we can count, there has been more than a 6,100 percent increase in less than 30 years. Is that possible? I mean, without an epidemic? I accept that more people with disabilities are able to get out and even drive thanks to the ADA and technology. That’s what we all want. But an increase of more than 423,000? There are only about 1.4 million people in the state who have a disability according to the latest census, but that includes ages 5 and up. I wonder how many drivers with placards would be part of that group. My guess, not 430,000.

According to the state Motor Vehicle Commission, “any person who has lost the use of one or more limbs as a consequence of paralysis, amputation, or other permanent disability or who is permanently disabled as to be unable to ambulate without aid of an assisting device or whose mobility is otherwise limited as certified by a physician” can legally obtain a special parking placard or plate.

Obviously, there’s no debating the first part of the law. If you’re missing a limb or the use of a limb or need an assistive device to walk, you have a disability and you are entitled to special parking privileges. But if all you need is a friendly doctor to write you a note, well, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.

I know every time I bring this topic up someone’s telling me about a friend or a relative who has a placard even though their mobility is not limited. How about the family member who legitimately had a placard but has since died and now the placard is passed down to other family members like an heirloom? The stories are endless but the spots are not.

Clearly there are legitimate reasons to have a parking permit even though you don’t have a visible disability. But it’s rare when I see people with obvious disabilities taking up the cherished handicapped spots. We’re the ones parked 20 rows deep, across two spots so we can deploy our ramp without someone blocking us in while Billy Bob parks his monster truck right in front of the liquor store so he doesn’t have to carry the three cases of Schlitz too far.

It’s time the state tightens up the regulations that have allowed for the proliferation of placards and plates and start fining people who abuse the privilege. New Jersey is desperate for revenue? Hike the fines and start cracking down on the abuse. Demand placard users produce the valid ID card associated with the privilege and let’s start weeding out the fraud.

Not only are the rules for obtaining a placard or plate lax, I doubt anyone has really looked at the regulations governing the number of handicapped parking spots in a lot since the ADA came out 20 years ago. With the growth in placards maybe we need to increase the number of spots designated for the disabled.

The bottom line is the laws and regulations associated with handicapped parking privileges are outdated. It’s time to crack down on the abuse and update the law.

Peter Callas is the former managing editor of The Trenton Times where he worked for 25 years. He now runs a public relations company, PGC Communications. Recently he started a blog, AbleNation.blogspot.com, where he writes about living with a disability.

Too many stories, not enough spots