Raleigh, N.C. — Police will step up enforcement of handicapped parking regulations downtown to ensure drivers aren't abusing the system, Police Chief Harry Dolan said.
A recent WRAL News 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.
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.
A task force appointed by Mayor Charles Meeker has been 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 month or two.
Dolan said he will launch the Handicapped Enforcement Action Team in October to patrol use of the placards. The team will consist of senior citizen volunteers, including some who are disabled.
"We all know that there's a great problem with abuse of the placards," Dolan 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.
A WRAL News crew spotted a woman in high heels leaving a parked car with a placard. She said she got it when she was in a car accident, and it remains valid until November 2009.
"If I need to be there for longer than two hours, I think I should be able to use my tag," said the woman, who declined to give her name.
An unidentified man tossed a placard on his dashboard after parking downtown and walked to the Wake County Courthouse. More than eight hours later, he returned to his truck but declined to comment on his use of the placard.
Some other cities across the country use volunteer citizen patrols to monitor handicapped parking. Others, including Charlotte, make those with placards pay at meters.
Dolan said he sees a volunteer patrol in Raleigh as a way to reduce the frustration over downtown parking availability and ensure fairness in the use of handicapped parking placards.
"Sometimes the senior volunteers will take photos. They can even take videos. Who's using (a placard)? Where are they authorized to use it?" he said. "They're able to put in the time to do it, and if it requires an officer to follow up to do enforcement, we can do that. But a lot of the leg work can be done by our volunteers, and that's a great shot in the arm."
According to the state Division of Motor Vehicles, there are close to 1 million active handicapped placards in North Carolina.