Carrots or Sticks? Handicapped Parking Edition

I’m convinced that shame can in many cases provide stronger incentives than a monetary penalty uncertainly enforced.  At a parking place in Luxembourg, the sign on the handicapped parking places reads: “Here is parking for a very handicapped person or a very inconsiderate (unscrupulous) person.”  This might motivate a lot of people better than a $50 fine should they happen to get caught parking there.

A similar motivation would have been provided by an economics journal, if my advice had been followed.  The editors were proposing an experiment in which they would one year publish names of the fastest referees, and even give a prize to fast referees who provided excellent reports.  I suggested that they instead publish the names of the delinquent referees.  Sadly, and wrongly in my view, they refused.

Mike B

The whole system of handicapped parking is woefully inefficient because many handicapped spots sit idle for much of the day. A better solution would be spots that allow regular people to park for short periods of time (5 minutes) or while someone attends the vehicle with handicapped persons still being allowed unrestricted use. Therefore instead of spots sitting idle during times when the handicapped are not needing it, they can instead be used by other individuals which can clear the space on demand after a short wait.


On the contrary, it is the most efficient parking space in the lot. After all, it's the only space that has a cost associated with it, the fine or public shame. What's innefficient is free parking:


In my town Pune(India) these kind of notices are everywhere , people in Pune are notorious for such notices. They write it for everything that troubles them.


Good point. There are a few problems with the shame motivator, one being that the more common signs like this are, the less effective they may be. If I were a non-handicapped person who would park in a handicapped spot in the first place, I also doubt a sign like that would change my behaviour.

The 'delinquent referees' idea would work, because it is the pillory approach: a public shaming. Something along the lines of having a photo taken of someone illegally parking and displaying it on a video screen/billboard/whatever would identify the person to many as one who is inconsiderate.


Only a considerate person can be shamed.

People who wrongly park in handicapped person are not considerate people.


HOWEVER, Daniel, I must disagree with your point about slow referees. While the handicapped space issue seems to have a moral lining (e.g., taking spaces from the needy is not good), the issue you seem to be addressing with the economic journal is based more on convenience--or perhaps impatience. Moreover, the unintended consequence of trying to stay off such a list might be to prematurely approve an article that was not properly vetted. And that woud be a shame indeed.

Why not just have a DEADLINE? If the items are due by X date, then it's clear whether a person did what they were supposed to do. If there is no particular deadline, but it's just about not being the last person to turn in your work, then proper vetting may not get done in the rush to not be last.

Just my take on it.


Olli M

Good idea, but the 50$ fine sounded off to me: that's really not high enough to deter this kind of behavior. Add another zero at the end and people will pay attention.

I currently live in Germany, where the parking ticket is 15€. My friends and I joke about the convenient system of after-the-fact billing for parking: even getting caught every third time it's only 5€ for parking. This has clearly shifted my behavior from my native Finland with 60-80€ parking tickets. Here I don't even really mind getting a ticket, I'm just glad it's so cheap - I also don't spend long looking for legal parking if I can find a spot where my car won't get towed. It's too cheap to feel like a punishment. I still won't park in a handicap spot, though - that would just feel wrong.

Johan J.

It's not the price of getting caught that keeps people from offending. It is the chance of getting caught.
But you are in a very special situation where you are used to higher prices, which makes the german tickets seem cheap. However alcohol is also a lot cheaper now, so do you also drink this more? ;)

Jake W.

More accurately, it's the cost expectation that doesn't deter people from offending. That is, it's the price times the probability of getting caught. The probability of getting ticketed is very small. Multiply "very small" by $50 and it's easy to see why people offend. Sufficiently increasing the monetary penalty or the probability of being ticketed will deter people.

Kyle P

Relevant picture of a handicap sign in South Africa:


Clearly, the dollar value simply isn't high enough. My disabled husband is currently studying law. At his university, the penalty is $800 for parking in a disable bay. (This is equivalent to a month's student payment.) This is much higher than fines for parking there than elsewhere (an equivalent $120 fine more common in local council parking)

At the beginning of every new year it is always very difficult for him to find parking as new students late for class will often park there (and be later overheard complaining about the high fine fee). By partway into the new year this misuse of the bays stops and he can get parking again.

Helpfully, the law administration desk can see the disabled bays - and knows all the law students and lecturers who have tickets. She's freely admitted to my husband that she will call the university ranger to come check on cars that she doesn't know. She see is as helping enable all thier students and staff to be able to get their education fairly.

As for the person suggesting short-term parking options - we have those here (10 minute parking bays, 20 minute parking bays etc) that are right next to the disabled bays. It sadly doesn't stop people parking in disabled bays, though it does seem to reduce it.

And a final note on the shaming.. Interestingly, this can backfire. My husband once was sitting in his car, parked in a disabled bay. Our daughter was inside getting bread (he wasn't up that day to getting out himself). He was lectured at length by a woman walking past about how selfish he was - up to the point he pointed out he had a sticker and was there validly. She didn't even apologise before storming off.


Enter your name...

The efforts of passersby to shame legitimate users can be appalling. I heard of one whose complaint was based entirely on the fact that the user looked happy.

I think the law building needs to put up two signs:

* Fine is $800.
* Building staff phone the rangers whenever a car is parked here, so make sure your placard is easily visible.

Albany Chris

I might park in the spot with the shaming warning if there was no fine... Depending on the setup I believe there are a lot of ethical problems with Handicapped parking.
Who can vote against handicapped parking? Apparently nobody - so there is a lot of it in places they're rarely needed. This leads to rampant abuse since why not use the spots if they are there?
The theory seems to be if there is any chance all the sots will be used, add another. I may have never in my life seen all the handicapped spots taken in any one place. At my supermarket is it worth having 20 able bodied people a day, 7000 people a year, have to walk 30 feet further when the last 3 (of 8) spots will only be used 10 times a year?

My doctor friend hands out handicapped permissions to almost every patient who asks. her theory? "There are so many spots, somebody should use them."

They built a Home Depot nearby that had a huge unused parking lot. The law required a percentage of spots be handicapped, so there were 27 handicapped spots.

So I might park in a shaming spot. I certainly would at that Home Depot. Not the ones up front though.



i carry post-it notes in my vehicle. with two daughters in wheelchairs, it gets very annoying trying to find spots for our van and very irritating when someone who doesnt need it parks there! we have left several {nice but to the point} post-its on windshields.


I run The Wheels of Shame blog, and we post pictures and shame violators. So O am with you that shame is the ultimate motivational tool.

Voice of Reason

If Freakonomics is supposed to be the study of incentives, than isn't the whole idea of a handicapped spot, or benefits for disabilities counter-productive? The system gives a benefit or incentive for somebody to be disabled. While, it would be absurd to thinking that somebody would go out of their way to become disabled simply to shortern their walk to buildings, it may be possible that in a risk/reward type activity, the risk could be mitigated by the fact that they'll get special treatment and benefits after it. A moral hazard if you will.

While most people would be quick to point out, as I would if I were reading this, that most of these disabilities are not the person's fault, maybe for the sake of the argument, we could allow handicapped spaces, but only if the person could prove that they had nothing to do with their condition, and they took every precaution to mitigate its effects (as in it wasn't something like a skate boarding injury, or obesity).


Ian M

I work with a woman who gets free parking at work because she has MS. She has not had symptoms in over fours. She goes to the gym four times a week for heaven's sake. She also has a handicap placard.
Never underestimate how much people suck!

Enter your name...

People with MS often have severe fatigue and sometimes pain. If you are concerned about it, you can usually report such things to the department of motor vehicles and ask them to investigate. (This is also what you do if someone seems to have "inherited" Grandpa's placard.)


I think that this is a great idea because cheap tickets dont scare people.