Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Technology Used to Counter Abuse of Disability Parking

TVNZ One News reported new technology that allows monitoring of mobility parking spaces. The new technology is touted as a breakthrough and the developers say it might even eliminate disability parking poaching altogether.

I think this shows a lot of promise, but I have reservations as well. There is certainly a lot of space for improvement in how disability parking spaces are monitored and enforced in New Zealand and abroad. This new system has some issues that need to be addressed, such as what shape the tag takes, how to handle stolen/borrowed tags, the availability of sensors everywhere, and enforcement.

At the moment, if you’re eligible for mobility parking, you are issued with a thick orange plastic placard. This costs the person with a disability $50 for a permit valid for 5 years. The placard must be displayed when parking in reserved disability parking spaces.

This new system uses an electronic chip instead of the current orange parking placard. According to Car Parking Technologies, a New Zealand company that developed the technology, “Instead of carrying a disability-parking permit, disabled drivers would have an electronic tag in their car that can be read by sensors placed in the parking bays“.

There have been sensors installed in most City Council owned parking spaces in the CBD in Palmerston North for several months now, to monitor parking meters. I assume that most cities in New Zealand have them. So it would be relatively simple to issue a tag to eligible people with disabilities and implement the monitoring through existing systems. That’s a plus.


The Tag Itself

What shape does that electronic tag take? Is it transportable? Is it highly visible? Eligible drivers and passengers with disabilities need to be able to use the tag in more than one car. If the tag is not transportable, then the use is limited to the one vehicle, which reduces the practicality of the tag from an end-user point of view. Also, it needs to be obvious that it is a mobility parking permit, easily visible from a distance (like the orange placards). Otherwise the electronic tag becomes useless in parking bays not yet equipped with sensors.

Borrowed Tags

The system can only monitor whether or not a tag is present. It can’t check if someone borrowed or stole somebody else’s tag. Anecdotal evidence worldwide shows that this is something that happens a lot. There is apparently a “blue badge” black market in the UK where disability parking permits can sell for up to £1,500. The State of Illinois has implemented some basic demographic information on their permits (such as permit holder’s gender, birth month and birth year) to limit swapping permits from one person to another (Quick Reference Guide for Parking Enforcement (PDF)).

Unless this new technology addresses the issue of fraud such as stolen or borrowed tags/permits, this new technology will not "spell the end of disability parking abuse worldwide".

Sensor Installation

The electronic tags will not be effective unless they are working everywhere disability parking is made available. While most (perhaps even all) City Councils in New Zealand have sensors already installed, not every business will be willing to spend the money to install such sensors. I can imagine big shopping malls might go ahead with such an expense. I would be very surprised if smaller malls, chains, or individually owned stores would spend the money.

Supermarket owners or managers often see little benefit from enforcing mobility parking spaces. I have been told by several owners and managers that they won’t enforce mobility parking because "they are our customers too", referring to disability space poachers. With such an attitude, how can they be expected to see the advantage of spending money to fix a problem that, in their eye, is non-existent or irrelevant?

Notifying Relevant Authority

Monitoring is well and good, yet without enforcement, there is no point to it. In New Zealand, City Council (not the Police) enforce / ticket mobility parking infringements. City Councils are not allowed to conduct enforcement on private properties, such as shopping malls, supermarket parking lots, restaurant parking lots, etc, unless the business has an agreement with Council. Even if there is such an agreement, Council parking warden have too large areas to cover and too few staff to cover them. This means such agreements are practically worthless.

Some shopping malls contract security companies that issue tickets, but these are the exception rather than the norm.

Even if a shop owner installed sensors, the lack of available enforcement would render the sensors pointless. Shop owners will know that, and will be deterred from spending the funds to install a "toothless" system.

It’s A Start

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited at the possibilities this new system offers. I think it shows promise. But there needs to be a lot of thinking to resolve some significant issues. And education needs to be done. Increasing the fines for disability parking infringements may also help make a difference.