Area residents disgusted with parking cheats

For many people, their patience with handicap-placard cheaters has all but expired.

Alan Hawes

People across the Lowcountry are fed up with parking cheaters and frustrated with the state's failure to stop these lawbreakers.

After a Post and Courier Watchdog investigation revealed widespread abuse of handicap placards, dozens of disabled residents reported how the abuse complicates their lives.

The newspaper also heard from disabled veterans, former parking-enforcement officers and transplants who wonder why South Carolina doesn't look at how other states have addressed the problem.

Ruth Jones, who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, even teamed with others at the Disabilities Resource Center on Dorchester Road and formed a citizen posse. They set out across the Lowcountry with cameras and notepads to document misuse of placards.

"Somebody has to do it," she said.

The city is considering a new crackdown on parking cheaters, said Janet Schumacher, an expert on disabilities issues for the city of Charleston.

But Schumacher, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, said the state also could do more to tighten rules for issuing placards and provide police with more information about placard users.

For more than a year, state lawmakers have been debating a bill that would do just that — but the legislation is stalled in a House committee.

Don Hurley, a family medicine physician in West Ashley, had a novel idea on how to crack down on lawbreakers: Target people who drive with placards hanging from their rearview mirrors.

Placard expiration dates are supposed to match a user's birth date. During license checks, police could verify whether they match.

The hang tags are a visual impairment and people have been in car accidents because the tags created a blind spot, Hurley said.

Some readers asked why people with disabilities are allowed to park for free in metered spaces and parking garages. Some activists for the disabled say this free-parking perk isn't necessary — that having a handicap doesn't necessarily mean you're poor.

The perk costs government agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Last year, the Charleston International Airport waived nearly $200,000 in parking fees to people with placards and tags. It's questionable whether some of these people really needed free parking. A Post and Courier survey at the airport found expensive late-model cars in many spaces for the disabled.

Readers said people use placards to beat the system in all sorts of ways.

State law says that if handicapped drivers pull into full-service gasoline stations, attendants are supposed to pump gas for them at self-service prices, said Jean Michael, who owns a station West of the Ashley. "We do this with pleasure for the truly handicapped."

But he said he's seen people who are "fully capable of standing beside a pump and turning it on." How does he know they're capable? "We have observed the same people walk into the store for other purchases."

Some people with disabilities said they work hard to maintain independence — only to see perfectly fit people park in handicap spots and dash in and out of stores.

A 70-year-old woman in an apartment complex on Daniel Island told Watchdog that she can't go anywhere without an oxygen tank.

"There are two handicap spaces outside my apartment. If I go anywhere with my car, most of the times I return to no handicap parking space available."

One frequent abuser is a woman in her mid-20s. "When I asked her why she had a handicap card on her windshield, she said it was her uncle's and that he gave it to her. I asked if he lived here, she replied no, but it didn't matter. 'First come, first serve' was her reply."

Some were particularly frustrated by the cheaters who park all day for free at metered spots around the downtown hospital complex. If those spots turned over more frequently, people with legitimate disabilities would have an easier time finding spaces close to their appointments, they said.

Partly because parking cheaters hog these metered spaces, Mark Mathias, who has muscular dystrophy, says he leaves an hour early for his appointments at MUSC to make sure he's not late.

Mathias says he's asked state legislators why they don't make the Department of Motor Vehicles put photos on the placards. "I got no response, other than I will check into it for you."

Others asked why the Department of Motor Vehicles isn't doing more to stop parking cheaters.

Officials with DMV this week didn't respond to telephone and e-mail requests for answers to questions posed by readers.

Reach Tony Bartelme at tbartelme@postandcourier.com or 937-5554 and Ron Menchaca at rmenchaca@postandcourier.com or 937-5724.