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It took a near-religious experience to make Parking Control Officer Robert Greenstrand realize just how widespread the illegal use of disabled parking placards had become in San Francisco.
Greenstrand's epiphany came when he busted a vanload of nuns parked in a blue zone, a disabled placard dangling from the rearview mirror.
"They were very honest about it and showed a lot of remorse," says the burly, mustachioed Greenstrand, recalling the incident that happened last year near Post and Grant. "The placard was issued to a nun who was back at the convent. The other sisters had just fallen into the habit of using it."
Greenstrand's pun aside, the abuse of placards is no joke for the disabled community or the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT). The lure of unlimited free and convenient parking in blue zones, green zones, permit areas, and metered spaces has convinced thousands of San Franciscan to risk DPT citations as high as $750 for illegal use of the placards. A few enterprising violators have been known to counterfeit the blue-and-white permits out of everything from cardboard to cling wrap. Still more use official placards belonging to friends and relatives. Greenstrand collared one attorney who was using a placard issued to a long-dead client. The DPT has confiscated nearly 1,100 illegal placards since December 1993, but the ticket writers on trikes complain that they're powerless to stop the biggest abusers -- doctors who authorize legal placards for patients who don't really need them.
"The original legislation that created disabled placards and zones was really geared toward wheelchair users," says Paul Imperiale, the mayor's citywide disability coordinator. "Now doctors are issuing temporary placards for people with bunions. It's having a tremendous impact on wheelchair users because blue-zone spaces are just all gone all the time. There are more permits than there are spaces."
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which is in charge of issuing disabled placards, says there are 21,370 active permits in San Francisco. By comparison, New York City has just 5,500. San Francisco has reserved approximately 900 blue-zone spaces exclusively for drivers with placards; the licensed handicapped can also park gratis as long as they like at any of the city's 22,000 metered parking slots.
DPT Executive Director John Newlin says the DMV is too generous in issuing the placards.
"When you look at how few placards are issued in a city the size of New York, you have to realize something is inherently wrong in San Francisco," he says. "It would be my impression that substantially less than 10 percent of the people who have placards should have them. The disabled aren't abusing the system, but there is major abuse of a system set up for the disabled."
The illegal or unjustified use of placards not only makes finding a parking spot more difficult for legitimate users, it increases traffic congestion and costs the city and local businesses money. As Newlin is quick to point out, when a placard-furnished car occupies the spot, meters don't get filled with quarters. The DPT also gets several angry calls every week from merchants who paid the city for a green zone -- which allows customers 10 minutes of free parking -- only to see it legally occupied by a driver with a placard.
"There are a lot of disabled people other than wheelchair users who really need their placards, but you start to wonder when you see a guy with a gym bag jump out of a car with a ski rack on it," says Greenstrand. "It gets really frustrating when you discover that person has a legal placard."
The DMV issues placards for a wide variety of reasons. Amputees and the visually impaired obviously qualify. So do those suffering from severe heart conditions or pulmonary disease. In addition, anyone with "a significant limitation in the use of the lower extremities which substantially impairs or interferes with mobility" is eligible. It is up to private doctors, however, to interpret these broad guidelines. As a result, a weekend warrior who sprains a knee at the company softball game could end up with the same parking privileges -- at least temporarily -- as an amputee or someone severely weakened by AIDS or an elderly resident hobbled by arthritis.
"Some doctors will sign off on a claim because they want to help their patients, but they don't think about the ramifications for the rest of the city," says Paul Church, a quadriplegic who serves as access coordinator for the city's Independent Living Resource Center. "This abuse ultimately reflects badly on the disabled community because it gives the impression everyone is abusing the system to get free parking."
When it receives an application accompanied by a doctor's certification, the DMV simply verifies that the physician is registered and in good standing with the California Medical Board before issuing a placard. The DMV has never disciplined a physician for supporting a frivolous placard application.
"Our folks don't have the expertise or the resources to screen the letters we get from doctors," explains DMV spokesman William Madison in Sacramento. "We obviously don't have any doctors or medical examiners here to investigate every application. We have to defer to the judgment of physicians."
Disabled activists are questioning the judgment of traffic cops as well as doctors, claiming they are often too quick to confiscate placards from legitimate users. Imperiale cites one recent case where the wife of a blind man parked and walked her husband to a nearby clinic. When she returned to the car, she was cited and the placard was confiscated. Technically, she was violating the law by using her husband's placard to get free parking. Greenstrand counters that parking control officers go out of their way to verify when someone is transporting a legitimate placard holder, but the disabled community isn't convinced the city does all it can to evaluate the law on a case-by-case basis.
"The city has gone overboard," Church says. "I agree there's a problem, but I don't agree with the way the city is trying to remedy it."
Any reform in the placard system seems a long way off. Newlin would like to see a change in state and federal law that would give cities greater authority to investigate questionable placard holders. He even has a plan to require dubious placard holders to undergo an examination by on-call physicians contracted by the city. Newlin cautions that this is just an idea and he hasn't pursued it. Imperiale favors a two-tiered system that gives wheelchair users greater privileges than those with other disabilities.
"I've been trying to push this on a statewide level with the DMV for about a year, but every time I call I get a different person," Imperiale says. "I get lots of complaints from disabled people all over the city asking for changes, but it's hard to get things rolling."
In the meantime, Greenstrand and three other parking control officers who concentrate on illegal placard use have plenty of work to do. On a recent patrol, the crew discovered that 15 out of 25 cars on Hawthorne Lane between Folsom and Howard had disabled placards. Four were illegal -- expired, fake, or unauthorized -- and many of the other cars sped away when the officers began ticketing.
"Placard abuse cuts across every ethnic and economic boundary," Greenstrand says. "It doesn't matter what color they are or how much money they have or what kind of car they drive. I've nailed everyone from millionaires to Muni drivers.