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Rules on the way for DMV’s handicap placards

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

When a bad back and bad knees forced her to get a handicapped parking placard six years ago, Lynn Johnson asked the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles for a copy of rules that would explain who could use it and who could not.

“And they said, ‘We don’t have any,’ ” said Johnson, 62, a retired state and federal government worker who lives in Smithfield.

The DMV does a pretty good job of telling drivers when they may turn right on red, and where they can buy fancy license tags with the names of their favorite NASCAR drivers.

But the agency does not explain — on paper, online or in person — how to use a handicapped license tag or rear-view mirror placard. And how not to.

Maybe that’s one reason our handicapped parking laws are the subject of confusion and abuse.

“I’ve been working for three years to get DMV to hand out with the handicapped placard a little pamphlet that says, ‘These are the rules,’ ” Johnson said. “If you don’t give them anything, they can say, ‘I got it from my grandmother, and they didn’t tell me I couldn’t use it when she wasn’t with me.’ ”

To help the DMV with this basic duty, Johnson drafted a brochure that outlines the law and gives situations where drivers can and can’t use handicapped placards. Run errands for your disabled mother? No. Borrow a car from your disabled veteran uncle? No.

“It wouldn’t cost them 10 cents apiece to hand these out,” Johnson said.

State law says basically that you qualify for a blue-and-white handicapped tag or placard if your doctor says you have a condition that impairs your ability to walk more than a short distance from a parking space. The placard entitles you to handicapped-only spots near store entrances and to ignore posted time limits when you park on the street.

But these privileges apply only when the handicapped person who received the placard is driving or riding in the car. The placard cannot be used legally by, say, a healthy relative who works downtown and likes to park all day on the street for free.

Johnson is a stickler for the law. She has had mixed success in several cities and towns when she tried to get police to punish violators.

She called the police in Asheboro when two able-bodied teenagers took the last handicapped spot in front of a store on a rainy day a few years ago. An officer waited for the young shoppers to return to the car and wrote a $250 ticket.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar proposed legislation in 2007 to make it easier for officers to enforce the handicapped placard law and to increase penalties for violators. The proposal died in committee.

At a minimum, Dollar says, the state should let the public know how the law is supposed to work.

“We need to ensure that persons who are truly disabled have these parking spaces, and not people who are simply using them for their own convenience,” he said.

A similar bill filed this year by other House members would make it easier for officers to read the expiration date printed on a handicapped placard.

It would also require the DMV to issue registration cards identifying the person who received the placard — something the agency already does.

Some states are more diligent about curbing handicapped parking abuse and explaining the rules to the public.

Virginia prints the handicapped person’s name on the placard, and Massachusetts prints a photograph as well. If you let someone else use your handicapped placard in Michigan, you lose your placard and pay a $500 fine.

These details are outlined on the respective state regulators’ Web sites. Perhaps North Carolina will join them in educating the public about the ins and outs of this important little law.

“We’ve had comments from some customers that it would be helpful to get out some more information, and we’re actually in the process of trying to do that,” said Marge Howell, a DMV spokeswoman.

She said the DMV plans to follow up on Johnson’s suggestions, with information to be handed out on paper and posted online. She couldn’t say how long it will take to do this.

“It’s hard to put a date on anything,” Howell said. “I’ve got a whole file of things we want to get done.”