Last year, a California audit revealed an impossible statistic: More than 26,000 people over age 100 in the Golden State had blue disabled placards, allowing them to park at any street meter for free, all day, or at prime blue-stenciled stalls at the front of store parking lots.
But there are only about 8,000 people older than 100 in California, and not many of them are driving anymore, according to state officials. Those vehicles parking for free with at prime spots with centenarian placards are likely being driven by children or friends of formerly disabled drivers who have died, or in some cases by others who purchased the placards illegally.
After years of disabled placard abuse in California, state officials are launching an effort to put a dent in the number of vehicles illegally taking up some of the prime parking spots in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other large cities.
A new state law, going into effect this week, requires the state Department of Motor Vehicles to tighten its oversight of the state disabled placard program. That includes reviewing the federal Social Security Administration’s “death file” and canceling placards of deceased drivers.
The crackdown stems from mounting complaints statewide from residents, city officials and Sacramento legislators who believe they see able-bodied people taking up prime parking spots.
“I’ve frankly gotten tired of pulling into a Home Depot or Target and seeing someone get out and run into the store,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. “That is just not right. This is depriving legitimate disabled people from using the spaces, and to some extent people build animosity toward the disabled community when they see that.”
A California State Auditor report in April said the DMV needed to significantly beef up efforts to prevent fraud, noting that officials accept applications without required medical documentation, issue too many duplicates and fail to cancel the placards of people who have died.
Auditors estimated that several hundred thousand of the state’s three million placards were likely being used fraudulently.
DMV officials said it will take some time for them to fully comply with the requirements.
“The most significant first step is the new requirement that we receive proof of identity and true full name and date of birth,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez wrote in an email to The Bee. “We are also taking steps to limit the number of replacement placards as required by the bill.
“Other elements of the bill regarding the Social Security Master File and renewal are coming, but take more time to develop.”
The DMV, which has its own roving placard abuse squad, already has tripled its number of citations over the last three years. The state issued 1,625 citations for illegal placard use statewide in 2016-17, up from 526 citations in 2013-14.
The placard crackdown, however, falls short of the type of overhaul that some, including Sacramento city officials, have said they would like to see. Those city officials have at times asked the state to look into tightening rules on when legitimately disabled drivers can park for free on city streets. Some have suggested that disabled drivers should be required to pay for parking or face time limits.
Disabled rights advocates have fought against that type of legislation, however, saying the state should focus on illegal users.
“A disabled placard is a crucial right,” said Pat McConahey, spokeswoman for Disability Rights California. “It allows people with disabilities to move around the community like everyone else.”
She cautioned against people making snap judgments about drivers with placards. “We want people to understand those disabilities can be hidden. People don’t realize.”
Sen. Hill, who authored the current law on placard abuse and has talked in the past about curtailing disabled free parking, said the right thing for now is to eliminate abuse and see how that affects availability of street parking.
The new law also requires holders of permanent placards to renew every six years, under stricter oversight. That replaces the current automatic two-year renewal, which allowed people who are no longer disabled to continue using a placard, Hill said. Applicants will be required to provide proof of their name and birth date by submitting a copy of their driver’s license, birth certificate or other approved document.
Hill said he has asked DMV to keep the Legislature up to date on implementation of the new law.