Raleigh, N.C. — Spina bifida doesn't slow Gail Lashock from getting to where she wants to go. But finding a handicapped-accessible parking space downtown sometimes does.
A recent WRAL investigation found people with handicapped placards park on downtown streets for hours at a time. Under Raleigh's interpretation of state law, a vehicle bearing a handicapped placard or sticker can take any metered or time-limited parking space – at no charge – for as long as the driver needs it.
The problem has plagued Raleigh for years, and a task force appointed by Mayor Charles Meeker is looking at the issue as part of a comprehensive downtown parking plan. The panel expects to submit recommendations to the City Council in the next couple of months.
Downtown merchants have long complained that customers have no place to park because cars bearing handicapped placards often occupy all on-street spaces all day.
Now, handicapped drivers like Lashock are calling for stricter enforcement to reduce abuse of the placards. She said she's frustrated because she doubts people with true disabilities are causing the parking gridlock in downtown Raleigh.
"It's hard to find (a parking space), especially when you need one," Lashock said. "I believe there's more people out there using tags that shouldn't be than that need them."
City Councilman Philip Isley said he shares Lashock's suspicion.
"There are absolutely some legitimate needs out there in the community. But I've seen people out there in the city deck that walk straight into the City Council. I can perceive nothing wrong with them," Isley said.
State law defines handicapped as someone who cannot walk 200 feet without stopping to rest. It also covers physician-confirmed heart, neurological, and orthopedic conditions, among others.
According to the state Division of Motor Vehicles, there are close to 1 million active handicapped placards in North Carolina.
Using someone else's placard is illegal, but Lashock said there is little to no enforcement of the law.
"Zero tolerance on misusing (placards), I think that would help a great deal," she said.
Some cities across the country use volunteer citizen patrols to monitor handicapped parking. Others, including Charlotte, make those with placards pay at meters.
As the city task force considers ways to promote greater use of downtown parking spaces, she said she hopes people who really need accessible parking aren't penalized.
"If we have to pay, we have to pay. That's my attitude, just like anybody else. But I do need that spot," she said.