By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The car is a beauty, no doubt. A 1975 slant-nose Porsche, painted white. Brown leather seats, deep and snug. Its round rear end fitted with a spoiler, creating an image of speed and mobility. Freedom, really.
The car's driver also is a beaut. Robin Cook. A tall, slender man with piercing eyes the color of sky. Cook is impeccably dressed, beeper clipped to his belt. He's fast on his feet, too, jumping in and out of his Porsche each day and bustling about his sparse office at 2112 Commerce St.
Cook doesn't look handicapped, but every day he hooks a permanent handicap parking placard on the Porsche's rear-view mirror and parks at a meter outside his computer repair office. Free parking, all day long.
One day it's the Porsche. Another day a purple Pontiac Firebird or a new Ford F10 pickup, driven by Cook or his twentysomething colleague. In past months, there have been other Porsches and another placard. Once there was a black BMW, a "For Sale" sign posted in its window as the car sat invitingly at an expired meter.
Everyone in Dallas has seen people like Cook--apparently able-bodied gents and ladies taking prime handicap spots at the supermarket, or walking away from expired meters, their blue tickets to free parking swaying from rear-view mirrors. Nary a crutch or wheelchair in sight.
"Legally," Cook says, when asked recently how he obtained his placards, one of which is good until April 2000. "Legally."
Cook won't say how he's disabled--perhaps a troubled heart. Still, he looks like one of those cheapwad pinheads who are collectively responsible for a new state law designed to curtail widespread abuse of handicap placards, but that has upset people who are actually disabled.
The law is a perfect example of bureaucratic bungling at its worst: Because lax laws can't stop people who take advantage of a good program, state lawmakers decided to get rid of the program. Baby out with the bath water.
Starting Monday, disabled persons no longer will be able to use their handicapped placards or license plates to park free at meters or inside government-owned parking lots, such as those at Reunion Arena, the airport, or public libraries.
The law also includes a multitude of new regulatory and enforcement tools designed to crack down on bogus placards and limit the distribution of legal ones to those who are truly disabled. Unfortunately, state and local officials have no idea how or when they will be implemented.
The prospect of paying for parking isn't necessarily what's upsetting people with disabilities, says Charlotte Stewart, the executive director of REACH, a nonprofit organization that assists persons with disabilities.
Many people who are confined to wheelchairs, or whose mobility is otherwise limited, can't reach the meters, and they fear they'll soon be slapped with citations every time they park, Stewart says.
"It's just gonna be a headache," Stewart says. "Of course, they [city officials] are ready to jump on the bandwagon, because it's more revenue for them."
Dallas traffic enforcement manager Jon Rose says his traffic officers will issue "courtesy" tickets that explain the new law during September and begin issuing $20 parking citations in October.
In the meantime, Rose says, his department has targeted 45 meters in downtown Dallas--where available parking already is sparse--that will be replaced with shorter meters and designated for handicap parking only. Since there are no specific figures on the number of handicapped parkers, Rose says he hopes the meters will be sufficient for now.
"We just really don't know what the demand is going to be," Rose says.
The fine for parking at a handicap-only meter will be $55, but beyond that, Rose says he has no idea how the city will enforce the other changes in the law that are designed to crack down on bogus placards.
Right now, Rose says his officers have no way to determine whether a placard is bogus because the Dallas County tax office, which distributes them, doesn't keep track of the information. Although each placard is assigned a number, the tax office doesn't keep a record of which number is assigned to what person.
And getting a placard is as easy as filling out a form, says Jimmie Smith, the county's clerk for disabled applications, who recently tried and failed to trace two numbers that appeared on placards hung inside Robin Cook's white Porsche.
Right now, anyone wanting a temporary (six-month) or permanent (five-year) placard need only complete a form and have it signed by a licensed physician, who attests to the applicant's disability. To qualify, an applicant must be legally blind, bound to a wheelchair or crutches, or have heart or respiratory problems that limit mobility.
Of course, the county doesn't check whether the physician's signature is valid.
"We don't have time to do that, nope," Smith says.
Not surprisingly, there are a few extra placards floating around out there. Rose says a survey his department conducted six months ago determined that 15 to 17 percent of the meters in downtown Dallas were occupied by cars with handicap placards.
That's pretty high, given that 10 percent of the population has a disability and not all of those people drive, according to Stewart.