Meter cheaters

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.

Under the new law, the Texas Department of Transportation will become responsible for issuing plates and placards, which will be redesigned to include a hologram that's supposed to ferret out fakes. In addition, applicants must provide a notarized doctor's statement or prescription, rather than just a signature.

The law also requires the Texas Department of Public Safety to establish a statewide database that will keep track of all handicap placards. Anyone who applies for a placard will have to provide their Texas driver's license number or a Texas identification number, which will be printed on the placard.

Theoretically, a traffic officer who suspects a placard is fake or ill-gotten could take the number off a placard, run it through a computer, and see if it matches with the car owner. Theoretically.

At the moment, however, employees at the Texas Department of Transportation are up to their ears in new legislation, which they're still trying to figure out how to implement, says department spokesman Mike Viesca.

"I'm not sure what's been done as far as the database is concerned. We're working on a design for the placard. We know that we have some deadlines that we're facing--September 1. Not everything is going to be ready," Viesca says. "Check back in two weeks."

Even when the state is ready and the full force of the new law takes effect, the chances that it will effectively deter people from abusing placards are remote: The only thing a traffic cop can do if he or she sees someone using a bogus placard is seize it.

The law does, however, give local government agencies the authority to appoint and train citizens to patrol the streets, looking for placard abuse. When these citizens suspect that someone is parking at a handicap-only meter with an ill-gotten placard, they will have the right to issue citations just like a traffic cop, says Steve Mayeux, the director of the Dallas office of Handicap Services.

"It's a step toward better abuse control. I don't know if it's the answer," says Mayeux, who adds that the most likely candidates for the voluntary patrol will be people with disabilities.

In other words, persistent citizens who nag seem to be the city's best hope for cracking down on people who have no respect for the disabled.

Robin Cook's sky-blue eyes narrow when he's asked to define his disability inside the offices of his computer repair business, which, to his misfortune, are in the same building as the Dallas Observer offices. Rather than answer the question, Cook turns his back and begins climbing the stairs to his loft office. Temperature rising.

"If you think you're a medical professional and can make a [medical] determination just by walking down the street," Cook says, stopping in mid-flight, reeling around, and pointing an accusatory finger. "You can

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