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Law to curb disabled-parking scams kicks in, but there’s a 15-day grace period in Chicago

Street parking will still be free for blue red disabled-parking placard holders special zones like this one LaSalle Street near

Street parking will still be free for blue and red disabled-parking placard holders in special zones like this one on LaSalle Street near City Hall, but the blue and red cards no longer will entitle holders to free parking in metered spots. | Chris Fusco/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 3, 2014 1:04PM

Able-bodied drivers who’ve been illegally using disabled-parking placards to avoid feeding parking meters in Chicago have just a couple more weeks before their free parking passes expire.

Only people who have a new yellow and gray “meter-exempt permanent placard” will be allowed to park free at meters statewide under a new Illinois law that takes effect this New Year’s Day. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration plans a 15-day grace period to give legitimately disabled people who might not be aware of the change time to adjust.

Until now, anybody who hung a conventional blue or red disabled-parking placard or had a set of handicapped license plates could park for free all day long in any metered spot in Illinois.

As a result, meter cheating became rampant in Chicago, with drivers using relatives’ placards, fake placards and even stolen placards to avoid paying parking rates that began soaring in 2009 under the meter-privatization deal championed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

That deal also impacted taxpayers by requiring City Hall to reimburse Chicago Parking Meters LLC for the free parking the company provides to drivers who displayed disability placards or plates — payments that have totaled about $55 million to date.

State lawmakers — prompted by a series of Chicago Sun-Times reports about the issue — created the new meter-exempt placard, which is issued only to people whose doctors attest that they are physically unable to feed parking meters or payboxes. Under the new law, only about 8 percent of the drivers who once qualified for free metered parking are now entitled to it, according to Secretary of State Jesse White’s office.

White’s staff has issued 299,530 disability placards through the end of December, only 30,510 of which are the new yellow-and-gray meter-exempt placards. There are another 83,000 cars with handicapped license plates throughout Illinois, but drivers who have those plates won’t be entitled to free metered parking unless they display a meter-exempt placard, too.

“It’s going to really cut down on the abuses,” said Bill Bogdan, White’s disability liaison.

That’s not to say that drivers won’t try.

Chicago still has limited number of street spots — marked by signs with the blue handicapped insignia — where people can park using any kind of placard or disability license plate. And then there’s the possibility of able-bodied people illegally using a relative’s yellow-and-gray placard just as they did a blue or red one.

Such cheaters usually are easy to spot because all placards include the gender and birth year of the disabled placard holder. But it takes time and manpower to catch drivers in the act of parking and then check their information. Chicago Police Department stings in the past year found that nearly two out of 10 drivers checked were using placards illegally.

City officials already have begun putting fliers on cars using conventional placards and handicapped plates to warn them of the change. Some 4,500 warning notices went out in August, while another 5,000 went out in December.

The warnings will continue to go out until the city begins enforcing the new law Jan. 16. City Hall also has put up posters about the law at bus shelters, parking payboxes, senior centers and hospitals.


Twitter: @FuscoChris

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