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Friday, December 14, 2001



Disabled parking
plan gets overhaul

The state plans to maintain a
database system to stop abuse

New changes to disabled parking program
close the previous loopholes


By June Watanabe
jwatanabe@starbulletin.com

The state's disabled parking permit program will undergo a wholesale revamping on Jan. 1, with a newly designed placard prominently displaying expiration dates, a new application process and a new statewide data system aimed at thwarting fraud and abuse.

Art That's on top of increased and new penalties for violations -- including against physicians who falsely certify a disability -- that took effect on July 1.

As it is now, there is no way the state and counties can keep track of who has a parking placard, legitimate or otherwise. Plus, the design of the old placard made it easy for tampering and difficult for law enforcement officers to verify.

The new regulations have been a year and a half in the developing, with various groups and agencies, including the public, asked for their input, said Francine Wai, executive director of the state Disability and Communication Access Board. The disability board "inherited" the program from the state Department of Transportation in July 2000.

Charlotte Townsend, assistant director of the disability board, who has a parking placard, said that "on the rare occasion I interface with the person getting in and out of the car or using those stalls, they don't always appear to have a disability," although they have the proper placard.

She said, "By having better administrative controls, we will be able to ensure that the appropriate people get the placards and also take more responsibility for its use."

By tightening the application and eligibility process and keeping computerized records of all applicants, the state hopes "to improve the enforcement of the program and the credibility of the program," Wai said.

She noted, for example, that about 30,000 placards had been issued statewide last year, of which 20,000 or so were blue ones signifying permanent disabilities and good for four years. The other 10,000 were for red, six-month placards for temporary disabilities.

But "we have no idea" whether 20,000 people actually hold the blue placards, because people can easily obtain replacements, Wai said. "It could be placards were lost, stolen, mutilated, renewed -- we have truly no way of knowing how many people hold placards."

As soon as a person obtains a placard, his or her name will be entered into a database. If someone is given a replacement, for whatever reason, the old placard and number automatically will be invalidated.

In that way, when a police officer or volunteer enforcement officer calls to ask if a placard is still valid, a clerk will be able to give an answer immediately. Under the current system, "if somebody reported a lost placard and got a new one, the old one was never invalidated," Wai said.

Another advantage to having a database is the ability to cross reference names with the Department of Health's death records, she said. Currently, the rules say parking placards have to be turned in when the holder dies, but it does not specify who should turn it in.

"Except on a rare occasion, placards don't get turned in when someone dies," Wai said.

All counties will use the same data system, and placards will continue to be the same on all islands. The new placards will be made of sturdier plastic and will have the expiration date clearly displayed on the front. The current placards have the months of the year on the side, with the expiration month punched out, making for an easily tampered card, as well as an expiration date that is difficult to see unless you're up close.

All current placards will be honored until their expiration date, although they may be exchanged for a new one with the same expiration date at no charge.

"Quite a lot of abuse is going on," said Honolulu police Sgt. Bart Canada, who oversees HPD's volunteer disabled-parking-enforcement program. Most of the abuses involve family members or caregivers of legitimate placard-holders, he said.

There also have been cases in which an individual was found to have more than a dozen placards, Wai said.

According to figures compiled by Canada, a total of 3,137 disabled parking citations were issued in Honolulu last year. From January through September 2001, 2,314 had been issued, and that is with the peak abuse months of November and December still to be reported.

Canada credits the increase in part to better enforcement. Since July, violators have been hit with heftier fines of $250 to $500 (up from $150-$300), while officers are now also confiscating placards, something they had not done before.

But even before the problem hits the parking lot, officials hope to crack down on the physicians who falsely certify someone to qualify for a placard. Since July 1, a physician found to be doing so would be charged with a petty misdemeanor.

"We do know that there are many instances in which doctors are too liberal in their certification (of a disability)," Wai said.

Canada noted a recent case in which a physician tried to certify himself.

Having a database would be one way to keep track of the physicians who are certifying disabilities.

Wai emphasized the database will be kept confidential -- it "will not be a public file."

While the Legislature has appropriated money to the counties to purchase computers, funding continues to be a problem on the county level. Although the counties enforce the law, the fines go into the state general fund.

Canada said he hopes the Legislature eventually will provide some funding to help the counties with enforcement because "the disabled community is a large community in Hawaii. They have needs and require accommodation."

"Any program is as good as its enforcement," Wai said. "If people don't get a ticket (for violations), there is no incentive to stop their behavior."


New changes to disabled parking
program close the previous loopholes

Key changes to the state's Disabled Person Parking Program:

PLACARDS

>> Beginning Jan. 1, new blue placards, made of a more durable plastic than the old ones, will be issued. They will have sticker decals, much like safety stickers, with the expiration date prominently displayed. Blue placards will be valid for four years, as in the past. Current placards will be good until they expire, although placard-holders can exchange them for new ones -- with the same expiration date -- at no charge.

>> Replacement placards will cost $10.

>> Red placards will continue to denote temporary issuance for people with a temporary disability, such as a broken leg. They will cost $10 each and be valid for the length of the disability, up to six months.

>> As currently required, ID cards will be issued, which people must carry when using a placard, to verify their disabilities.

ELIGIBILITY

>> Eligibility will be expanded to include people with a renal or oncological conditions if the person is unable to walk 200 feet. The following conditions do not qualify people for a placard: blindness, deafness, mental disability, learning disability, upper limb amputation, old age.

>> Visitors no longer will be allowed to get a Hawaii placard, although all counties will honor out-of-state placards. In the past, the residency requirement was often waived when people forgot their home state placards.

>> Agencies are not eligible for placards. As in the past, they must use the placard of the person they are transporting.

APPLICATIONS

>> A new application form will be issued, requiring the applicant to sign and acknowledge the program's rules. The first application must be in person, unless the doctor says the applicant is unable to appear in person because of a disability. In that case, someone else may come in person, bringing all the proper identification forms of the applicant. The county will mail the placard.

>> As in the past, renewals can be done by mail.

>> When a placard expires, a new application with a new physician's certification will be required. Currently, no further verification has been needed to prove a disability or even that an applicant is alive.

>> Depending on the circumstances, there may be a $10 fee charged for replacements or for temporary placards.

ENFORCEMENT

As of July 2001:

>> For parking in a reserved disabled stall, for using another person's placard or an invalid placard, or for transferring your placard to another person, the penalties have been increased to $250 to $500, from $150 to $300.

>> Physicians who fraudulently verify that a person is disabled are subject to a petty misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of $1,000 per offense.

>> People who fraudulently manufacture a placard are now subject to a petty misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of $1,000 per offense.

Source: State Disability and Communication Access Board. For more information, call the board at 586-8121 or e-mail staff at accesshi@aloha.net.



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