February 29, 2004
New Hampshire Sunday News
Don’t be surprised if you see people snapping pictures of cars illegally parked in handicapped parking spaces.
Under a state law that took effect last month, all it takes is a camera and an eye for justice for people with disabilities or their drivers to lodge an official sworn complaint against offenders.
And these “citizen complaints” carry weight. Police departments will be issuing tickets carrying fines up to $250.
The law, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, sets out to let citizens with disabilities do what handicapped advocates say most police departments are too busy to do — aggressively police handicapped parking spaces.
Aside from the occasional able-bodied offender, a bigger concern is fellow handicapped drivers blocking the access lanes to the spaces. In such cases, drivers are left stranded until the offender returns or a Good Samaritan can be found to reposition the van.
A ramp on the side of a van requires a full 8 feet for a person to enter or exit, which is why the access lanes have become tempting parking spaces. Van access lanes can easily accommodate a car.
Those who use vans say once they get out and go shopping, they often come back and have to wait hours before the driver of the car blocking their way comes back.
Sometimes, those dependent on wheelchairs and scooters will call the police, who, if they arrive, will help by backing the van out so the ramp can be used. Or police may help hunt down the offending driver.
But, advocates for the disabled say police often have other more pressing complaints to pursue or they often arrive too late and the violator is gone. The exception they cited was the Manchester and Portsmouth police departments. These two departments have take an active role in policing handicapped spaces, they said.
Manchester police Sgt. Mark S. Fowke said officers routinely issue tickets for these parking offenses, although he was unable to give an exact number.
Judy Hallam of Meridian, who was instrumental in getting the new law passed, said, “There’s places I’ve been and have called the police and I could die first before they came.”
Most of the time, the person with the disability takes on the task of hunting down the driver, and that typically entails the painstaking task of going store to store and having the driver paged.
The offenders are typically elderly people with disabilities, who feel they are entitled to park on the yellow lines if the other spaces are full. They are often abusive, too, advocates said.
Cheryl L. Killam, accessibility specialist with the state Governor’s Commission on Disability, said, “I have been threatened, sworn at and people have actually tried to hit me with their vehicles.”
Killam said such run-ins are a weekly occurrence. She found herself blocked from her blue Ford van four times in the past two weeks, including twice in one day.
These unpleasant experiences are what led Hallam to start a one-woman quest to change the law.
Hallam, 52, whose Multiple Sclerosis put her in a wheelchair four years ago, routinely came back from shopping to find she couldn’t get to her van.
She resorted to placing cones next to her van. But, people would either steal them or move them. She left signs, asking people not to block her van, and people ignored them.
That started her calling local and state officials. She discovered that it wasn’t even illegal for cars, most of which had handicapped plates or placards, to park in the yellow striped access lanes. So if the police did come, they couldn’t write a ticket.
With the help of her local MS chapter, Hallam pushed for a state law to make it illegal to park on the yellow striped lines.
She had no idea that the result would be new and increased fines, plus citizens’ complaints.
Michelle Dickson is advocacy coordinator for The Central New England Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society
She said once the proposed legislation was before Senate members, the senators revised it into something much stronger.
She said Sen. Robert Boyce, R-Alton Bay, whose has experienced problems because his wife has a brain injury, took it upon himself to increase the fines for those without disabilities parked in the reserved spaces from $50 to $250.
Then, Sen. Clifton Below, D-Lebanon , saw numerous photographs that Hallam had taken of cars blocking her van. After seeing the photographs, he revised the bill to allow those with disabilities to photograph and lodge complaints with the police.
Dickson, the chapter’s advocacy coordinator, said, “We were actually surprised when the Senate passed a revised bill that would allow persons with disabilities and their drivers to take photographs of vehicles blocking the access out or illegally parked.”
Killam said as far as she could tell through her research, New Hampshire is the first state to make a law empowering those with disabilities to police handicapped parking spots.
As a result, she is starting to field calls from other advocates around the country seeking information about it.
As for her part, Hallam received the Central New England Chapter’s advocacy volunteer of the year award.
But, she said, “The joke’s on me.”
During the year and half it her took to change the law, Hallam’s condition has progressed to the point she is no longer able to drive. As a result, she relies on a driver now.
“I don’t even have to use a handicapped space anymore,” she said.
Copyright © 2004, The Union Leader