(MCT) — Drivers who illegally use handicap parking plates and decals will face stricter fines and penalties, including the possibility of having their licenses revoked, under a measure Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Monday.
The move is meant to deter people who do not qualify for handicap placards from abusing the system and taking parking spaces that are reserved for people with disabilities.
The crackdown, however, ultimately depends on enforcement, a challenge given that many police departments face tighter budgets.
"It is against all laws of human decency for you to be able-bodied but yet you are going to take advantage of a program set aside for those in need," said Secretary of State Jesse White, whose office's police force conducts stings targeting illegal handicap parking. "If you don't belong there, don't park there."
Starting Jan. 1, fines for unauthorized use of placards for people with disabilities will increase from $500 to $600. Fines for those who make counterfeit placards or use the parking passes in the absence of a qualified holder will double to $1,000. Additionally, doctors who submit false paperwork to help someone get a disabled plate or placard who doesn't need it will face a new $1,000 fine. Penalties increase for repeat offenders.
Those who use handicap placards of people who have died face an even tougher punishment, with fines starting at $2,500 combined with a mandatory suspension of driving privileges for six months. Repeat offenders could have their license revoked for one year.
One of the more controversial changes will eliminate the parking meter fee exemption for those with disability placards. That means those with valid placards will have to pay parking meters unless they are unable to access or operate them.
The idea is to make it less attractive for people to scam the system. If having a disabled placard does not come with free parking, the hope is drivers will no longer feel it's worth breaking the law. Chicago officials expect it will reduce reimbursements for free disabled parking to a private company leasing the city's parking meters for 75 years.
White's office plans to issue new placards that designate which drivers are eligible for free meter parking when that provision goes into effect in 2014.
Supporters hailed the new measures as a good starting point to a more thorough review of the program, saying illegal use of handicap placards erodes the quality of life for people with disabilities. They say it's not just because the designated parking spots are closer for people who have problems walking, but because those stalls are often the only ones large enough for vehicles equipped with ramps or other mobility devices.
"It's a frequent occurrence that happens to me all the time," said Marca Bristo, a wheelchair user who is president and CEO of Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. "It's hard to 100 percent know for sure, but when you see somebody hop out of an SUV with a bag of groceries and they run across the street and there's a placard on the SUV and no sign of anyone who appears to be disabled, it's a pretty good indication. I used to call people out, but they could become pretty mean-spirited. So I think it's important to look for ways to crack down on abusers."