Few things irritate Kathy Florence like a person wrongfully using a handicapped parking space.
The 64-year-old Galloway Township woman had relied on temporary handicapped tags issued by local police since she had knee surgery about eight years ago, she said, only moving to permanent tags from the state this year when she realized she wasn’t getting any better.
“It just really gets me mad,” Florence said of the scofflaws. “I wish I didn’t have to use this.”
The situation may change, because a new state law set to take effect Aug. 1 will require people with state-issued disabled-parking tags have a doctor reconfirm they need special privileges when they renew them every three years. Officials hope the changes will weed out people who do not need them.
The number of state-issued tags has grown by thousands each year, allowing closer parking to a destination for people who are ostensibly less mobile.
There were 441,476 people with disability tags in 2010, according to the state Motor Vehicle Commission. That figure grew to 450,034 in 2011 and to 460,765 in 2012.
Gov. Chris Christie signed the proposal into law in January as some officials questioned the need for all of the tags.
“For New Jerseyans with a disability, these designated parking spaces can mean the difference between being able to comfortably go to a store or doctor,” said Raymond P. Martinez, the MVC chairman and chief administrator. “These changes to the parking privileges law will better serve those who truly need them, while also preventing future abuse of the placard and license plate program.”
Drivers who qualify for the tags can receive a disability identification card and either a set of handicapped license plates or a special tag that hangs from a rearview mirror.
Current state law requires an initial medical exam to qualify for the program, but the MVC allows drivers to renew by mail. Disabled drivers who already have their tags will not have to seek recertification until their current ones expire.
The MVC also plans to change the tag in order to make the expiration date more prominent and avoid duplication. The agency also plans to tweak the wording, so that "person with disability" will replace "handicapped."
People will still be able to get a temporary hanging tag from their local police department. But that tag expires after six months and will only be able to be renewed once.
Egg Harbor Township resident Ron Anderson, 62, said Monday he supports the changes. Walking with difficulty following a chainsaw accident about 18 months ago, he said his wife has counseled patience when he has seen people illegally parking in handicapped spaces.
Joseph B. Young, the executive director of Trenton-based Disability Rights NJ, said the statewide organization supported the changes, which he said he believed were warranted to get the unneeded handicapped tags off the streets.
"Handicapped parking is a very controversial subject, and this is a step in the right direction to get the number of users down," he said.
Young recounted a sub shop near his office where a delivery person used a handicapped tag to park in front of the restaurant before going out on a delivery. He questioned the need: "They were a delivery person, I assume walking is part of the job."
A police chief in Somerset County told him the department last year found between 400 and 500 instances where a person used a tag without needing it. Some people even reused a dead person's tags, Young said.
Raina Gazurian, a geriatrics and family practice doctor with AtlantiCare and based in Manahawkin, said she supports the changes.
“I think it’s a good idea to have evaluations,” she said, because sometimes a person can heal and no longer need the benefit.
She said she evaluates people based on how far they can walk without aid, and whether there is shortness of breath or limited mobility. She gets a request about once every three months.
She has turned people down, Gazurian said, including one man who seemed otherwise capable, but said he felt tired.
The issue may also be more pressing in northern New Jersey, where parking is more limited in the more densely crowded counties.
In Egg Harbor Township, police Lt. Robert Gray said demand for temporary handicapped tags has been somewhat consistent, with 58 in 2011, 53 in 2012 and 35 so far in 2013.
The number of Egg Harbor Township tickets written for illegally parking in a handicapped space has varied, he said, with 21 of the $250 tickets written in 2010, 31 in 2011 and 23 in 2012.
Those ticket numbers are similar to other swings statewide.
There were about 9,710 tickets written for being illegally parked in a handicapped spot in the 12 months between May 2012 and April 2013, said a state Judiciary spokesperson. That figure is down from 11,025 in the 12 months ending April 2012 and from 10,524 in the 12 months ending April 2011.
Lying on an application to get handicapped license plates is a fourth-degree crime, with penalties of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
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