How Can We Stop Handicap Fraud?

A few years ago, a colleague of mine off-handedly mentioned that he “tried not to use” his spouse’s disability placard to park in handicapped spaces when she wasn’t in the car.? Frankly, I was appalled.? The implication was that he sometimes succumbed to the temptation to use the placard to park in a handicapped place.

Apparently, he isn’t alone. This Washington Post article suggests that the practice is common place.? In some cities, parking with a placard not only gives you access to handicap spots, but also allows you to “park at meters for free for double the maximum time allowed.”? Not surprisingly, an illegal market has developed to transfer these valuable items:

Families have been known to pass them down as if they were heirlooms. Thieves covet them: Last year, a Temple Hills man, Thais Miller, 19, was arrested for stealing placards from cars – ignoring global positioning systems and stereos – so he could sell them for $50 each.

The Post article points out that police are reluctant to challenge drivers on whether or not they are really disabled, and the police tend not to enforce misuse of placards at handicapped spots on private property.

So Freaknation, what can we do to curb these fraudsters?? We’ll send Freakonomics swag or a copy of Carrots and Sticks to the best answer.

One partial solution is to add expiration dates — so that at least the fraud will not continue unto the 10th generation.

The Post article also points to the wiki site? which even offers a handy iPhone app where citizens can reported suspected placard abuse.

My daughter suggested letting police cruisers have access to a private database where the placard number would be associated with a particular disabled person.? The police wouldn’t have to ask the driver if she is disabled.? They would only have to ask if she is the person named in the database.

If the database were made public, ordinary citizens could take on some of the job of enforcement.

But what’s your smart idea?

Of course, one solution is to do nothing.? One can always argue that the police have more important concerns.? But the Post article points to some of the real-life consequences in reduced mobility created by insincere placard use.

If you’re more interested in abusing the system, you might try to have your infant certified as temporarily disabled.? You see, most states certify?people who are non-ambulatory as disabled, and as a technical matter most babies qualify.

[HT: Peter Siegelman]


Issue handicap license plates instead of placards. It is a simply matter for law enforcement to run a plate in NCIC and determine whether it is assigned to the Black 2004 Lexus it is mounted upon. For the most part his resolves the issue of wrong car/wrong plackard.

This does not resolve the spouse use issue though.

Our local mall has an expectant mother parking area. I always thought that exercise was good for this lot.


Rather than an answer, I have another question: what is the optimal number of handicapped parking spaces in relation to the total number of parking spaces in an area? Presently I think that there are too many, because I have never in my life seen a parking lot in which all of the handicapped spaces have been occupied. Don't forget that there are costs to non-handicapped drivers; for example, on Black Friday every single non-handicapped space was taken at a local electronics store and there were folks circling the lot waiting for folks to leave the store and drive out of occupied spaces. Meanwhile, there were 6 unoccupied handicapped spots.

It is not unreasonable to expect handicapped folks to have to wait once in a while for a parking spot, just as non-handicapped folks must occasionally wait. I suggest the we reduce the number of handicapped spots by 50% and see what happens.

Blaise Pascal

Two points:

In some jurisdictions, placards already have expiration dates and must be renewed.

Also, an LEO checking a database should ask not just the driver, but any passengers as well.

I do not believe I have ever used a placard when I was the only person in the car, but I know I have parked in a handicapped spot when the placard-holder had then chosen to remain in the car while I ran an errand without them. But I also have parked next to a restricted spot when available when it wouldn't unduly inconvenience my disabled passenger, so I think it balances out.


I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis as a pre-teen; when I began driving at age 15, I asked my father (an MD) if he could hook me up with a handicap tag. He said that while I might technically qualify, he had enough patients with serious mobility issues that I should just enjoy being able to walk. I haven't pursued the matter since.

Jonathan L

I have a relative with Parkinson's who requires an oxygen tank. When his son-in-law would borrow his car, he'd roll around and park right up front with that placard dangling from the rear-view window.

My answer? The placard should have the photo ID of the qualifying driver right on it. It doesn't call any more attention to the person than the vehicle itself does, and it certainly doesn't have to list the person's reason (since that isn't any old stranger's business to begin wtih). This way, all it takes is a quick comparison from the picture to the driver to know if it's one in the same person.

I wish we would see more new and expectant parking. In places where winter weather is a common occurrence, seeing some better parking given to those who qualify is nice.


Our local mall had the pink preggo spaces for a while. I know the idea is that if you're at eight or nine months you might need more room to get in and out of the car, but the sign didn't say anything about size. I always was tempted to park in one, not visibly pregnant, and dare the security officer to make me prove I wasn't.

Recently they were changed to expectant mom and/or traveling with small children "family" spaces.

Abusing placards is a long tradition in Budapest, Hungary. You can see some pictures of Ferraris and Hummers parking with placards here: (the text is in Hungarian). The government has not made any steps against it, because it is very difficult to fight effectively against the abuses without hurting the interests of the disabled (free parking without limitations in the whole city in any car used to transport a disabled person). Enforcement is difficult, because the police generally doesn't meet the driver or the transported person, only the parking car.
My ideas were:
- limit the free parking in time
- attach the placard to a car owned by the disabled person (limit the engine power to avoid sportcars)
- don't give free parking for non-disabled people transporting the disabled person.


In my town, parking enforcement has cameras on their vehicles to tell if someone has been in a particular spot for more than their time (I guess during the chalk days people would just slightly move the car to hide the chalk)...There camera do catch the plates of the cars to see how long they have been in the spot. I am sure if placards are tied to a plate, we can tell if the plate is allowed to be there, but then there is the issue if the person the for whom the placard is intended is present...


Tie the device to the person.

The signs turns on (activates) with a valid fingerprint. The device becomes inactive once the vehicle moves.

The handicapped person needs to be present each time the car stops if you want the handicap sign to be active at that particular stop.

Or, put a RFID chip in the persons arm :)


One of the primary problems of enforcement of anything to do with placards is that for the vast majority of the time that the placard is in use, the people are away from the car, which is empty, so no one is seeing anyone get in or out of the car.

That said, including an expiry date and a recent photo of the placard's owner on the placard would probably help. An expiry date would keep the things from having everlasting value, and a photo would allow the legitimate user to be matched to the placard by police. (And also nosy people, though I'm not sure we really want to encourage nosy people to get more involved in hassling placard users than they already are.)

That said, it would still be easy to lie, if you were caught using someone else's placard, since it's unlikely the same person would see you both when you left your car and when you arrived back at it. "I came here to drop my sister/father/friend/daughter for his/her doctor's appointment/hair stylist/class and now I'm leaving again. I'll be back later to pick him/her up."

An expensive, probably worth more than it would cost to implement it, solution would be something high-tech. Provide some kind of electronic device that would display the handicap approval, but require a recent biometric/fingerprint scan from the approved owner to activate it. Recent as in 'that day' would probably suffice for most purposes, though with the complicity of the approved owner, who could approve the device each morning, family members could still cheat. At the very least, it would eliminate an after-market value on placards.

Some kind of detection for the car starting up/shutting down and requiring a new authorisation any time the car was parked would eliminate that problem if it was technically feasible (given that placards need to be portable and usable in any car, interfacing with every car might not be practical). This, though, would be problematic in the 'picking up from an appointment' scenario, since the approved user wouldn't be there to approve the placard use, and someone might get a ticket in the time it takes to go get the approved user.

I don't think there's a perfect solution, but a daily re-authorization might be as close as we'd get.


Doug H.

One way to limit the fraud is to use a windshield sticker in lieu of a placard. This will not prevent a spouse from abusing it but it would prevent resale (except with the car itself).

As far as enforcement is concerned, as long as there remains at least one open spot, there we should not worry about enforcement as no one is being denied access.

chris Hauser

if you don't belong there, don't park there.

if you can, a walk will do you good.

if you can't, hopefully others know better than to deny you what you are permitted to do.


My proposed solution: Put the person's DMV photo on the handicap sticker. (if they don't have a driver's license, make them get a non-driver's license so that there's a photo to use)

By the way, some parking lots have, in addition to handicapped spaces, spaces labeled for pregnant women and people with small children.

Lee Markosian

End the massive subsidies for motorists, which will reduce car use and free up parking spaces (for those who can still afford to drive ;)


Massachusetts uses the person's name and photo on the placard, as well as an expiration date. However, you are allowed to cover the name and photo with a "privacy shield", so it's kinda useless for ticketing.

Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team

Use the "5 Year Old Rule." IF a 5 year old child can see the person using the Handicap Parking Spot has a Physical Handicap then it is appropriate.

Otherwise it is being used as LAZY SHORTCUT BY ABUSERS.

And the Public is OBLIGATED to HELP Scrutinize abusers and report fraud. Abusers should be subject to heavy fines and loss of Placard.


Add RFID chips to the placards, and then add both cameras and RFID readers to the signs in the parking spots.

If a car parks in the spot and the RFID reader in the sign does not receive info from a placard, a picture is taken of the car's license plate and a ticket is sent.

For cars that have valid placards and park in the spot, letters are sent to a random sample of tag owners confirming that they were parked in the spot at that day and time.

The cost will be offset by revenue from tickets, which should be high when the system is first implemented, and as knowledge of the system spreads, revenue will decrease and eventually plateau. My guess is revenue trends should be similar to those of speed cameras, which catch a lot of people when they're first installed then show a decreased level of success as people learn where the cameras are located.

Jonathan Bagley

Charge for the disabled parking - pay and display ticket from nearby machine. Ticket machine contains camera which photographs parker and prints photo on ticket. To claim back money, parker turns up somewhere in person with the photo receipts.


The best solution is to replace regulatory rationing and in-kind transfers with a market-driven system for distributing convenient parking and a cash or near-cash transfer of transport subsidy for the mobility impaired.

Designated spaces and tags are an in-kind transfer to the mobility impaired. You have trouble getting around, so we make it easier for you to get around. A nice symmetry, but driving is only one transport mode, and one disproportionately NOT used by persons with limited mobility (paratransit, mass transit, etc use are more prevalent than among the population at large). It also guarantees that the valuable resource (convenient parking) is underutilized, waiting empty for the occasional user. Regulation-mandated minimum parking does a poor job approximating demand, a problem only exacerbated by having tiers of parking differentiated for two classes of users.

A market based solution is the preferable approach. Even if free parking remains prevalent overall, the most convenient spaces (the row of spaces currently reserved for the handicapped) could be priced. We would hope that at least private lots would find the optimal price, with demand- and time-variable pricing. The handicapped and other persons needing transport could then be given transport vouchers (or better yet, cash) equal to their share of the rents on these spaces. Essentially, this is the cash value of the in-kind benefit currently distributed through unfunded mandate on parking owners.

A price-and-subsidy system makes fraud harder and enforcement easier. Quizzing parkers about their claimed handicap is boorish, and the transfer of tags undermines the certification system. Pricing parking makes the question of legitimate parking easy, and a clear incentive to enforce would be created (maximized revenue!). Identifying and certifying those who should receive benefits (hang tags now, cash or voucher in my proposal) remains tough, but a cash subsidy would defeat tag borrowing and theft. Mandated free parking is a burden distributed, via increased prices on retail goods, to consumers generally; direct government subsidy would make salient to regulators the cost of fraudulent claims. Parking tags by comparison are seen by regulators as an innocuous perq, to be doled out whenever possible (even illegitimately, to friends or bribe-payers).

The real benefits of this proposal aren't in just the reduction in fraud: they're in greater benefits to the handicapped, and more utility for the non-handicapped who are currently prone to fraud.

Unless the handicapped all prefer parking over all other goods and society can provide parking for less than its cash equivalent, the transfer of equal values of cash or multi-use vouchers is pareto-superior. Obviously, a disability imposes more costs than just inconvenient transport; I only mention vouchers because it would maintain the symmetry of the current system. Either option also has the salutary effect of shifting handicapped travel mode choice, and subsidizing the handicapped who cannot or do not drive (consider the blind, paralyzed, or frail). Since the benefits are no longer tied to personal vehicle ownership, vouchers or cash would also be spent on mass transit, taxis, or other more environmentally-friendly forms of transport.

The market solution also solves the misallocation of scarce parking spaces. While anyone with a high value on convenience can pay for priced spaces, proper pricing would ensure that spaces are available for any handicapped person arriving. Pricing also frees up access to the most convenient spaces for people with temporary or minor disabilities, who currently do not go to the trouble of getting handicapped tags. Also consider persons who have no literal disability, but who legitimately need the most convenient parking (parents of young children, expectant mothers, persons moving extremely heavy or fragile packages), who are currently excluded under the current system. All of these persons experience some disutility when parking at unrestricted spots, even if reserved "handicapped-only" spaces are open. Pricing would free such persons to spend out of pocket, without troubled conscience, for using the convenient parking spaces they need.



I'm not sure how effective it was, but I recently saw a sign on a designated handicapped spot that read "Stupidity is not a handicap. Please park elsewhere." No doubt it shamed some people into not cheating, and it gave the rest of us a smile.