SFMTA Looks to Tackle Abuse of Handicap Parking Placards

The man and woman in this SUV, parked with a disability placard in a disabled parking spot on John F. Kennedy drive in Golden Gate Park last weekend, had no visible signs of disability. Before parking, the couple switched seats to allow the woman to drive. (Note: Here, the woman is seen picking up something that she dropped.) Photo: Aaron Bialick

Aiming to reduce handicap parking placard abuse, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency is in the early stages of an effort to reform state laws that enshrine free parking privileges for placard holders.

Misuse of handicap placards deprives legitimately disabled drivers of reserved parking spaces close to their destinations, cheats the SFMTA out of public revenue, and lets drivers occupy high-demand parking spots all day with no incentive to limit their stay. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the agency confiscates about 2,000 parking placards for misuse every year, and the fine for the violation was raised this year to $935, following a state bill passed in 2009 that increased the fine ceiling from $100 to $1,000.

Though few details are available on what the SFMTA’s campaign would look like, Rose said any reforms would require state legislation, and that “all options are on the table.” SFMTA staff is currently “working with our regional and state partners to address placard reform to not only make parking easier and more efficient for all, but to improve access to drivers with disabilities,” he said. The agency plans to form an advisory council on the issue this fall.

Aside from the number of placards confiscated annually, the extent of placard abuse in San Francisco isn’t known. But as the Sacramento Bee reported last week, it’s a growing problem in cities throughout California:

As placard numbers grow across the state, frustrated officials from Sacramento to Los Angeles say too many users are in fact able-bodied people abusing the system. It’s time to put a stop to it, they say.

The number of placards in Sacramento has risen far faster in recent years than population growth. As of last year, 100,000 vehicles in Sacramento County had placards. That’s nearly one of every 10 vehicles, the third highest among California counties.

Under state law, the Department of Motor Vehicles issues placards to drivers who submit applications signed by any of a number of health care workers: doctors, chiropractors, optometrists, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives.

The application requires the health care worker to say the person meets disability requirements set by the state. Qualifying disabilities include lung disease, heart disease, inability to move without an assistive device, significant limitation to lower extremities, other disorders that impair mobility, and visual acuity below certain standards.

DMV officials say they think most of the abuse is by relatives and caregivers of legitimate placard holders.

Some city officials in California say such misuse would be dramatically reduced by requiring some or all placard users to pay for street parking at regular metered spots. Under that scenario, cities likely would increase the number of blue curb zones designated only for cars with disabled placards. Parking lots would continue to have disabled parking spots.

As Jay Primus, the SFMTA’s manager of SFPark, pointed out in the article, “Right now, there is tremendous (financial) incentive to cheat,” which is enshrined in California law:

The disabled parking perk has deep roots in California. State law in the 1950s gave disabled veterans parking privileges. That was extended in 1959 to everyone deemed disabled. Officials and advocates say the law was put in place to aid people whose physical limitations made it hard to use meters, and hard to return to a metered car in a timely manner. Advocates also say the law takes into account that some disabled people are lower-income or on a fixed income.

The SFMTA launched an effort several years ago to require placard holders to pay at meters, with funds going toward improving disability access, but it “did not get off the ground,” according to the Bee.

Reforming the state law to allow cities more leverage in tackling the problem would lead to a much more sane parking system, as UCLA professor and parking guru Donald Shoup told the Bee: “It would lead to a lot more money for every city if you can flush out the abusers and restrict it to the people who really need it.”

Disability advocates, according to the article, said they “certainly want abuse curtailed” and that any such effort should be based on solid data to avoid penalizing people with disabilities.

At an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting in March, director Malcolm Heinicke noted the difficulty of identifying whether or not a placard holder has a legitimate disability that might not be visible. “One of my neighbors said he is convinced that someone using a disabled parking placard in his neighborhood is not actually disabled. I realize, how is he to know?,” said Heinicke, pointing the question to SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin.

In response, Reiskin encouraged anyone concerned about handicap placard fraud to report information, including the vehicle’s license plate number, to the city’s 311 hotline. “It’s not always evident why someone is legitimately entitled to having that placard,” said Reiskin, “but there’s certainly no harm in reporting any suspicious, fraudulent activity.”

  • mikesonn

    “the Department of Motor Vehicles issues placards to drivers who submit applications signed by any of a number of health care workers: doctors, chiropractors, optometrists, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives.”

    Optometrists, really?? I mean, I see “visual acuity below certain standards” but shouldn’t that also be the standard at which you are no longer allowed to operate a motor vehicle?

  • There is a giant Hummer that always parks in a handicap spot at 10th and Irving.

    I really, really, want to believe that there is a plausible explanation, but I have my doubts.

  • Guest/EL

    Operating a motor vehicle is irrelevant.  If you’re blind, you’re entitled to the placard so that someone who is able to drive can drive you and (hopefully) park somewhere close to your destination.

    The free parking privilege (that I don’t agree with) is a separate issue.

  • mikesonn

    But then that person has to be present. Placard tied to person, not vehicle.

  • Marc S

    Is the issue that people get the placards for illegitimate reasons, or that friends/family borrow a legitimately acquired placard to avoid paying meters or taking a convenient space?

  •  All of the above.

  • Guest/EL

    The privilege is tied to the person – that part you’re correct.  But the privilege can be tied to a placard that can be on any vehicle, or to a specific vehicle that has disabled plates.

    Using your example, you can be blind, own a vehicle, have disabled plates on that vehicle, have it be driven by someone else, and park for free (which I don’t agree with) so long as you’re being driven or picked up.

  • Wai Yip

    Definitely review the free parking policy. There is certainly a tremendous incentive to cheat.

    This can actually benefit legitimate placard card holder. Less cheaters mean easier for them to find parking space.

  • Anonymous

    I’m guessing that the primary abuse, as the article mentions, is when friends and family of somebody who is legitimately disabled either use the disabled person’s car or take the placard and put it in their own car. So here’s an easy fix: the placard is like an ID (with appropriate counterfeiting measures) which has the license plate of the car and the name and photo ID of the person with the disability. PCOs can check that the license on the placard matches that of the car, and if not, it’s a ticket. And if they see the driver exiting/entering the vehicle, they can also check that their ID to see that it matches the placard. But even if there is no PCO there, it will make people who are cheating nervous to know there is a picture on the placard that is not theirs and hence they will be less likely to cheat.

  • Interesting article about nationwide abuse of disabled parking placards:


    From the article:

    • In Boston, a recent crime spree involved a group of thieves who used
    sledge hammers to smash windshields and steal disabled parking permits
    from their legitimate owners. An unrelated study in 2007 found that out
    of 1,000 parking permits that were inspected in downtown Boston, fully
    one third were being used by nondisabled drivers, including 49 permits
    issued to people who had died.

    • When residents and commuters in Austin, Texas, discovered that
    disabled parking permits allowed all-day free parking in the downtown
    area, fraudulent use of permits increased by 300 percent, costing the
    city an estimated $1 million in annual parking revenues. The same
    scenario is playing out in most major American cities.

    • In California, where permit abuse is most rampant, one out of 16
    drivers has a disabled parking permit — more than double the ratio of
    disabled drivers nationwide, according to ADA statistics.

    • Disabled parking permits are bought, sold and traded on websites like
    eBay and Craigslist, and black-market permits can be purchased, like
    drugs and guns, on the streets of major cities, typically costing around
    $25. “Legitimate-looking” permanent and temporary permits can also be
    purchased — in bulk, no less — from various online retailers.

  • Davistrain

    During her last years, my mother had a “disabled” tag that she was qualified to use.  After she gave up driving, my daughter, one of her friends or myself would take her on errands.  Since I was often on a night shift, and my daughter worked in retail sales, this worked out great.  One day I was taking her to the supermarket, and was about to pull into a
     “handicapped” spot.  She said, “No, I’m feeling pretty good today.  Let’s just use that regular spot.”  Some people understand.

  • Joel

    ID checking would work, but the placard is tied to the person, not the vehicle. So license plate checking won’t work.

  • Andy Chow

    Putting a picture on the placard creates a privacy issue. Disability is a healthcare issue and there are laws that protects the privacy of patients.

  • Andy Chow

    An approach that could be pursued is to have regional registration of the placards rather than through the DMV. In the Bay Area for instance, it would be processed by the same agency that processes the RTC ID card for disabled transit riders. If someone is living outside of those counties that have regional disabled transit ID program, then DMV would continue to process those placards.

  • velonazi

    Wouldn’t be such an issue if the disabled placards didn’t come with free parking. Problem is how to change that without impacting the requirements/needs of the truely disabled.

  • mikesonn

    You can match ID to placard by number. No need for a picture.

  • Cafebmw

    here on sutter @ larkin someone parks 3 (!) cars not with a placard but with disability plates (2 of which are sequential). the vehicles are parked sometimes for a month or 2 before being moved around. those spots are metered and there is weekly street cleaning. one vehicle, a pickup truck, is loaded with a motorcycle on the truck bed and a surfboard strapped to the rack for something like more than 3 years. 
    and 2 blocks up on larkin @ pine another disabled (?) person is parking a pickup truck and a motor scooter permamentally at the green curb, which is actually for customers of the pine street station post office.
    again, WTF???

  • voltairesmistress

    I recently wrote the SFMTA suggesting that it require all drivers pay at smart meters that can be paid remotely by phone.  This would allow disabled drivers to add money to their meter from wherever they are.  Further, I suggested that many disabled persons, particularly senior citizens of means, have no need for a parking subsidy.  I added that low-income disabled persons could get discounted, even free parking by obtaining an ID, special SFMTA parking cards, etc., in the same way that disabled or low income persons currently get special ids to use MUNI at a subsidized rate. I hope that once state law is modified, localities like San Francisco can craft more sensible disabled parking rules that take advantage of the new parking technologies that allow remote payment.

  • Anonymous

    Good points all. But there surely is a way to stop this abuse, and it might require changing some things. @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus : that makes sense about the privacy issues, so no picture, fair enough. But there can at least be a license plate number on it. @ff13484aea83201c1cb27ba1f1648347:disqus : why can’t we just tell people you can only have one car per placard? If you really need to use two cars, then you just have to get a second placard. So that way, you at least can’t use the placard on a different car which will almost certainly cut some abuse right there.

    With abuse as rampant as it is, the system as it currently is is not working. Gotta come up with some new ideas.

  • Anonymous

    “It’s not always evident why someone is legitimately entitled to having that placard,” said Reiskin, “but there’s certainly no harm in reporting any suspicious, fraudulent activity.”

    As Reiskin says, do not assume that you can detect a handicap. I have a friend who walks but has limited mobility due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. She can’t climb stairs and often can’t walk more than a  hundred feet at a time.

    She regularly has strangers rudely challenge her on the street for using her placard. Don’t be one of those people.

  • Report it to 311.

  • Interesting to look back at SFStreetsblog coverage of this issue in 2009.


    One quote of interest:
    “For over ten years the MTA Enforcement Division has maintained a special
    parking enforcement unit to seek out and cite those who abuse parking
    privileges. The unit consists of four teams of two PCOs who have been
    specially trained in issues associated with disabled parking
    enforcement, such as understanding that holders of disabled placards may
    have hidden disabilities.”

    I would be very curious to know if the MTA special parking enforcement unit is still in operation?

    In 2011, there were 53,470 disabled placards issued to San Franciscans. (Who knows how many illegitimate ones were also in use.) In 2011, there were 440,800 vehicles in total registered in San Francisco. This means that 12% of all vehicles in San Francisco could have a legitimate disabled placard.San Francisco has 26,800 metered parking spots. It is possible that every metered spot twice over could be occupied by a vehicle with a disabled placard. From a 2011 SF Examiner article on the issue, an SFMTA study that found that 14% of meters were occupied by a vehicle with a disabled placard. A 2007 comptroller’s report estimated that San Francisco loses $15 million annually due to placard abuse. (San Francisco collected approximately $40.5 million last year in meter revenue, which means it lost a third of its potential revenue to disabled placard abuse.)

    I agree with others that because disabled parking placards provide the bearer with such a significant potential parking subsidy (up to $300 per week for one of the premium metered spots, or $15,000 per year) it creates a system ripe for abuse.

  • Joel

    @jd_x limiting placard use to a single card would discourage car sharing as an option for disabled folks.

  • Anonymous

    @ff13484aea83201c1cb27ba1f1648347:disqus Can’t we come up with a system where your placard is temporarily tied to the carshare only for the time you have it out? I mean, this stuff is all technology driver already, so seems like it would be easy to just have any handicap information transferred over as well. But I still don’t think we can just give people a placard which can be used for any car (even carshare), because it’s just way too ripe for abuse. We need a better solution.

  • EL/Guest

    FYI, all meters can already be paid remotely by phone, and money can be added to the meter from wherever they are.

  • SuperQ

    Or this could be someone like a friend of mine with Lupus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupus_erythematosus). Many days she is fine, but some days it attacks her joints and she needs the handicap spot so she can do less walking to make it into a grocery store.

    Thankfully she’s not an asshole and doesn’t abuse the sticker and only uses it on bad days.

  • I don’t belive the SFMTA confiscates 2000 placards a year or even 200 for that matter….

  • Jolsvgs

    five out of every six of my acquaintances have disability placards.  They are either their dead spouses or a deceased parent.  One has a parent’s and that parent died in 2004

  • Parkingguy

    Try going through Chinatown / Financial District / Marina / or Civic Center area and count HOW MANY placards are there….you’lll be amazed!  I lived in Chinatown for over 30 years and never seen SO many handicap ppl in my life!  

  • Parkingguy

     Karen..you can’t think of it like that.  There’s also the fact that MANY drivers coming into the City to work/shop also adds into that number.  It’s crazy how much abuse goes on.

  • noname

    This wouldn’t work, and here’s a reason why. Suppose I am a dad with a disabled kid. I park in the handicap spot to pick up my kid (kid is not in car). A cop comes and tickets me… even though this is valid use.

    My kid comes in his wheelchair and I need the handicap spot so that there is space for him to get into the car with his wheelchair.

  • Honest

    Nobody wants to say it, but there are people who got the Handicap placard when there were very sick with HIV/AIDS. Now they may be back to work full time and not sick, yet their doctors still renew the placards.

  • My handicap placard can be the difference between being able to get a few groceries or going without due to a disability that no one can see with my clothes on !~! Just because I am not carrying an oxygen tank or limping or using an assistive device doesn’t mean that my heart condition makes it possible to walk more than twenty five feet in any given day some weeks. No one can see a spinal cord or traumatic brain injury except the people who deal with it and yet without access to nearby and very easy to find parking, people who suffer with disabilities like these and othrs are even more severely hobbled in their attempts to do their activities of daily living.

    I look like I could play 90 minutes of soccer without breathing hard–looks can be very deceiving…

  • I only use mine when I absolutely need to as well and I know that this is true for many of us.

  • KAM

    I have a disability and got my placard 19 years ago. If I’m remembering correctly, a new placard has been mailed to me every 2 years since then without me having to get a doctor’s signature. Why have I not read the suggestion that our doctors must fill out the paperwork each time our placard expires? For those of us with disabilities, I’m sure we’d have no problem getting a doc to sign this. Maybe this could weed out some of the cheaters?

  • Tony Barretto

    You have to understand disability before you jump to conclusions, as indeed Aoron Bialick has done. Sure the women has walked and bent down to pick up something. No sign of disability there, right ? Wrong ! Don’t judge a book by its cover. People will and do cope with lots of pain to do something and try to appear as normal as possible.

    As an example, CSF/ME, Arthritus and HIV/AIDS, can have a certain amount of normality. Though they suffer from pain and arthritus or have side effects that they have to cope. Unless you are disabled in this way or know someone who is, then your looking at disability from a 70/80’s viewpoint.

    There is a need to review who issues placards and to ensure who is using the placard. Surely in places where there is high abuse, it is possible for random checks by law enforcement ?

  • None

    Just to voice a personal frustration after I was confronted by a vigilante and then a confused officer. A handicap placard may be used when the vehicle is being operated by or for the transportation of the disabled person. I may use it to pick up or drop off my child. He will be in the car when I park or when I leave, but not necessarily both. Parking to pick up my child from school when he is not in the car is NOT a misuse of the placard.

  • None

    That’s not entirely true. A handicap placard may be used when the vehicle is being used by or for the transportation of the disabled person. My handicapped child will be in the vehicle either when I am parking or when I am leaving, but not necessarily both. The person must be in a reasonable proximity not necessarily present.


SFMTA Board Greenlights Push to End Free Disabled Placard Parking

The SFMTA and the Mayor’s Office on Disability produced this video explaining why free parking for disabled placard holders is bad policy.Looking to end the dysfunction caused by California’s failed policy of giving free parking to disabled placard holders, the SFMTA Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday giving agency staff the green light […]

Assembly Passes Law Cracking Down on Disability Parking Permit Abuse

Confiscated counterfeit and altered placards. Photos: Matthew Roth The fines for illegal use of disability placards and for fabricating fraudulent placards could go as high as $1000 if Assemblymember Fiona Ma’s new bill passes the State Senate and is signed by Governor Schwartzenegger.  The bill, which passed in the Assembly near unanimously at 73-3 on […]