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Disabled Parking Spots Still Abused, Advocates Say

April 5, 2010

Despite crackdown, enforcement efforts seen as inadequate

Since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, Randi Daniels has had countless arguments with scofflaws. She and her husband are used to pulling up to a designated parking space in a mall, only to find it occupied by a seemingly able-bodied person loading up heavy grocery bags.

“I’ve been sworn at, when I was using a walker,” says the 61-year-old, who’s now in a wheelchair. “I say to them, ‘I hope you never, ever need this spot.’”

Nowhere was such opportunism more apparent than in Yorkville at peak shopping time on a balmy Saturday last month. A reporter found no fewer than 16 accessible parking permits around a single block, many of them displayed on the dashboards of BMWs, Lexuses and Mercedes-Benzes. Well-dressed shoppers were more likely to be getting around on Jimmy Choos than with walkers, wheelchairs or canes.

Despite a reported crackdown on misuse, there are more disabled parking permits in circulation than ever: more than 535,000 temporary and permanent Accessible
Parking Permits (APPs) in the province, according to figures provided by Service Ontario, up from about 470,000 three years ago.

While an aging population may account for the increase, Lynda Staples of the Canadian Paraplegic Association of Ontario thinks doctors are giving too many permits to people who don’t really need them. “To a senior who’s a long-time patient, they don’t always have the chutzpah to say no,” says Ms. Staples,
who has used a wheelchair for 40 years and needs a double-wide accessible parking spot to manoeuvre her way in and out of her car.

After a 2007 report revealed that there were three times more permits issued to centenarians than the number actually living in the province, the Ministry of Transportation says it now does monthly cross-checks on permit holders’ names with death records from the Office of the Registrar General.

Ministry of Transportation spokesman Bob Nichols says family members of the deceased are required to voluntarily turn APPs in to the ministry.

The current system makes APPs too easy to get in the first place, say some critics. Any primary-care physician, nurse practitioner, chiropractor, physiotherapist or podiatrist can certify the application for a permit, which is issued for a mobility impairment, heart or lung condition, or visual problem. Permanent
APPs are valid for five years, while temporary permits – for a broken leg, for instance – are valid for a maximum of one year.

Such limits work in theory, but enforcement is a challenge: Valid permits can be used by anyone, as long as the permit holder accompanies them. And it’s
all too tempting for a cheater to borrow Grandma’s pass for a shopping trip, knowing it’s unlikely that anyone will ask questions. City by-laws allow APP holders to park for free in metered zones, and stay well past mandated time limits for street parking.

Toronto Police’s Parking Enforcement Division says it’s well aware of the potential for misuse. Aside from the 260 Blue Hornets on patrol, Parking Enforcement
employs a rotating team of five officers in the Disabled Unit.

“They’re specially trained in investigative techniques,” says operations supervisor George Johnstone. About 11,000 tickets were written in Toronto for APP-related offences last year, such as parking in a designated space without a permit, which carries a fine of $450.

Three years ago, new security features were built into the passes to foil imposters. “A unique identification code provides parking enforcement officers with information to determine if the individual using the permit is the actual permit holder,” says Mr. Nichols.

Parking enforcement officers can seize permits they suspect are being misused, and can lay charges under the Highway Traffic Act, with a maximum penalty of $5,000. In 2009, 630 of these charges were laid in Toronto, Mr. Johnstone says.

But all this is of little comfort to Ms. Daniels and Ms. Staples, who say parking in the city hasn’t gotten any easier for them.

“The people making the rules aren’t the ones who have to experience this day in, day out,” says Ms. Daniels.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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