A white pickup was parked on Broadway in downtown Oakland on Wednesday. It was there last week too, both times with a neon yellow workman’s vest hanging behind the driver’s seat and a traffic cone sitting in the truck bed. There was also a disabled parking permit hanging from the rearview mirror, guaranteeing that this truck can stay parked at the meter indefinitely, for free.
For some people, a disabled parking permit hanging on what looks like a workman’s truck might prompt a negative reaction. Others may be more kindhearted; maybe the driver had to transport a disabled family member somewhere. Maybe it belongs to a workman who got hurt. However, a quick glance down the row of parked cars might make anyone into a skeptic.
Oakland North found that 44 percent of parked cars surveyed in downtown Oakland and Chinatown on Wednesday carried disabled parking placards. That’s 107 of the 245 cars that were parked on parts of Broadway, Franklin, and Clay Streets, as well as Eighth through 14th Streets.
That’s an exceptionally high ratio, considering that last year the California Department of Motor Vehicles allowed enough placards to exempt 9 percent of the cars and trucks registered in Alameda County – about 100,000 placards – according to statistics provided by the DMV. The total number of placards in the system in California and in Alameda County have both roughly doubled in the last ten years. The tags hang from the vehicles’ rearview mirrors, allowing drivers to park for an unlimited time at blue curbs and meters within Oakland, the latter otherwise priced at $2 per hour.
Placard fraud costs the city income in meters and parking tickets. Furthermore, because cars bearing placards have unlimited time and don’t need to be moved every hour or two, fraud prevents parking turnover. That can severely limit parking options for everyone, disabled or not. “The parking placard needs to be of value and be there for people who need it,” said Bryon MacDonald, 64, program director for the California Work Incentives Initiative at the World Institute on Disability in downtown Oakland.
The city is also aware of this problem. “In downtown Oakland alone, several hundred vehicles displaying disabled person parking placards are parked at metered spaces on a daily basis. It appears that many drivers and/or passengers of these cars are improperly using disabled person parking placards issued by the DMV,” wrote the City Administrator’s office in a statement issued November 2009. The statement said that the City Council estimated fraud costs Oakland $150,000 in yearly parking revenue.
But it can be hard to tell when placards are being fraudulently used. “When you open the hood on this issue, there are more issues,” warned MacDonald about looking into the legitimacy of placard users. He’s an amputee with a wooden foot. “When I wear long pants, no one has a clue that I’m an amputee or have a disability,” MacDonald said. He’s worried that people might mistakenly believe legitimately disabled drivers or passengers are illegally using placards. Those with chronic fatigue or a mental disability, like a fear of crowds or tight places, have symptoms invisible to strangers, he noted.
Furthermore, MacDonald wondered about Oakland North’s counting, pointing out that many people pay to park in private lots downtown, but anyone with a disabled placard would choose only to park on the street, where it’s free. “The street parking nets a disproportionate share of placards,” he said.
Nonetheless, the city of Oakland has acknowledged widespread placard fraud in recent years, a direct result of the increasing cost of parking in some neighborhoods.
Yet Oakland police have cited only a handful of drivers for improperly using the placards since last July. Improper placard use is a misdemeanor that requires a court appearance and can result in a fine of a few hundred dollars. Three police stings netted 29 violators since July, 2009, about 35 percent of the 83 people who were questioned.
The stings – roughly four hours long – involve officers stopping placard users seen entering or exiting cars and asking them for identification proving that the placard belongs to them, according to Jeff Thomason, an Oakland police spokesman.
Most of the fraud is misuse by a family member of the legitimate placard holder or a person using an expired placard, Thomason said. However, the police can’t address the question of whether there’s fraud in the DMV application process. It turns out, neither can the California DMV.
The DMV requires a doctor or certain approved medical staff– this can be a nurse practitioner or chiropractor, for example – to sign the form that the applicant sends in. The DMV doesn’t require those missing limbs to have a doctor’s note; they may merely appear in person at their local DMV office. However, the DMV doesn’t have the staff to double check the roughly 2.5 million placards issued in California or call medical professionals back to verify signatures, according to Jan Mendoza, a DMV spokesperson. Also, the DMV can’t scrutinize whether someone needs a placard. That’s for medical staff to decide, Mendoza said. She said it’s up to individual cities and counties to prosecute fraud.
Pursuing any kind of fraud costs money and could give people a negative perception of the disabled, but there are other ways to address the proliferation of placards. Oakland doesn’t have to allow unlimited free parking to the disabled at meters.
“It’s a nice benefit, but I don’t necessarily need free parking,” said Susan Henderson, director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley. She said that it would be possible to give a time limit – perhaps four hours instead of the regular two – or make disabled people pay for parking, as is done in other cities.
Henderson immediately amended that by saying that the eliminating the free parking might be detrimental to disabled people who are in a tight financial situation. “People who need free or reduced cost would be dismayed,” she said.
“You don’t want to wreck the whole program because there’s some fraud going on,” Henderson cautioned. She said that what really irks disabled people is a car without a placard parked illegally in a blue spot.