Hands off our parking bays

If the police want to catch criminals, the best place to start looking could be disabled parking spa

I’m usually a pretty calm, relaxed, laid-back sort of person. I don’t easily lose my temper or get hot under the collar. But one of the things which really makes my blood boil and is guaranteed to turn this normally tolerant, peace-loving Essex girl into a kind of modern-day Avenging Fury, is able-bodied people who park in disabled parking bays.

This offends me deeply because it’s such a totally anti-social action. I can’t believe that there are able-bodied people in this world who are so lazy, selfish and ignorant (sorry, I don’t mean to mince my words) that they would rather deprive a disabled person of a parking space than pay a few quid or walk a few extra yards.

It’s worth remembering that for some people, who cannot walk easily or far, being unable to park near their destination could prevent them reaching it altogether. To put it bluntly, a disabled parking space could mean the difference between someone being able to do their shopping at the local supermarket or going home empty-handed.

For a number of years, the national Baywatch campaign – which is backed by a consortium of disability groups – has tried to raise awareness of this issue, with some success. In April Preston council became the latest to announce it would be cracking down on the misuse of disabled parking bays at its leisure centres. Council staff will be patrolling car parks and issuing warning notices to able-bodied drivers found parking in spaces meant for disabled badge holders.

But the message is still not getting across to motorists. In the latest survey of car parks, more than 20% of disabled bays were being used by non-disabled drivers, an unacceptable level of offending. At two hospitals all the disabled parking spaces were taken by cars without blue badges.

What staggers me is the reaction of drivers when you try to challenge them about their behaviour. One of my brother’s friends used to have a part-time supermarket job while he was a student. Whenever he spotted able-bodied customers in disabled bays he would point out to them that they should not be parking there. Rather than show embarrassment or remorse, they would often subject him to a tirade of abuse.

There have been times when I’ve become so infuriated by these thoughtless individuals that I have resorted to my own form of direct action. My weapons are paper, ink and a heavy dose of sarcasm. If I see a car parked in a disabled bay without a badge, I have been known to put a note on its windscreen. Comments I’ve left include: “If you want this space, do you want a disability as well?”, “I think you need an eye test – you clearly can’t see this space is reserved for disabled people” and “Did you enjoy walking away from this disabled parking space?”. Admittedly, these protests are not quite in the same league as Gandhi’s 240-mile salt march or the Greenham Common women’s peace camp but it does give me an outlet for my frustration. And I hope my notes have made some people think twice before doing it again.

Interestingly, a study in 1999 revealed that drivers who illegally use disabled parking bays are highly likely to be guilty of other offences. Researchers from Huddersfield University and the police used the drivers’ registration plates to look them up on the police national computer. They found that a third of the illegal parkers had criminal records, half had committed previous road traffic offences, and a fifth were ‘of immediate police interest’ because of suspected connections with unsolved crime. One in 10 of the cars were in an illegal condition and a fifth had been used in or linked to thefts, drugs or other offences. As criminologist Sylvia Chenery, who led the research, remarked, this is a “very neat example of the bad guys self-selecting”. It seems that, if the police want to catch criminals, the best place to start looking could be disabled parking spaces.

Sadly, some able-bodied drivers are not satisfied with simply stealing disabled parking spaces – some even stoop as low as stealing the disabled badges. According to the Local Government Association, around half of the blue badges in London are being used illegally. And the incentive is obvious. Not only do badges allow free and unlimited parking in pay and display bays, plus parking for up to three hours on yellow lines, they also exempt their owners from the £8-a-day congestion charge.

With parking fees continuing to rise and the congestion charge zone expanding, blue badges have become a highly desirable commodity. They can now change hands for as much as £1600 on the black market, police sources say. One expert has calculated that a blue badge could save the holder £5,000 a year if they parked in a city centre every day for work.

Of course, disabled badge abuse is not just confined to London. A year ago the Audit Commission revealed that thousands of badges in Manchester and Merseyside had been cancelled following the discovery that they were being used after the holder had died. A crackdown by the police in Edinburgh on one day in November uncovered 11 incidents of drivers abusing the blue badge scheme. One man was found to be using his dead mother’s disabled parking badge while a company director was charged after he used a home made badge on his Mercedes.

So what is being done to tackle badge abuse? Council parking attendants in England were last September given the power to inspect disabled parking badges. Previously, only a police officer had the right to do so. But an investigation by Five Live Report in February suggested that few local authorities are using this new tool against fraud. Of the authorities who responded to Five Live’s survey, half said they were not using the power at all. One London borough said it chose not to use the new powers as they wanted to avoid confrontation with the public.

Some campaigners have called for the badges to be redesigned to make fraud more difficult. Currently badges do not carry a car registration number and have the owner’s photograph on the back, so it is normally hidden from view when the badge is displayed. This means badges can easily be transferred between vehicles. A pilot scheme using vehicle-specific badges in Tower Hamlets cut badge thefts by 20%.

However, limiting a badge holder to only one car would severely restrict people like my grandparents who qualify for blue badges but do not own their own car. When they need to be taken somewhere, they have four different relatives who may drive them. For my grandparents and others in a similar situation, it is important their badge can be used with any car.

Perhaps the time has come to experiment with some new, innovative punishments for disabled parking abuse. Those found to have stolen a blue badge clearly love parking their car. Indeed, they adore parking so much, perhaps we should consider giving them a week’s free parking in their own designated bay in their local town centre – the only catch being that they must be forced to stay in their parked car 24-hours a day for the entire week.

And new technology could be employed to crack down on the misuse of disabled parking spaces. Whenever an able-bodied driver tries to park in a disabled bay without a blue badge, a sensor could detect this, prompting nearby neon lights to flash and a loudspeaker to play the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The prospect of very public humiliation would, I’m sure, provide an effective deterrence to offending.

Meanwhile, it’s important that the authorities do not underestimate the profound impact blue badge theft can have on people’s lives. One disabled woman and her husband in East London have twice returned to their car after a hospital appointment only to find the windscreen smashed and her blue badge stolen. On the second occasion, the thieves had gone along the whole row of eight or nine cars in the disabled parking area, breaking into every vehicle and grabbing the badges. This woman regularly has to attend clinics at this hospital, often spending most of the day there, and now she does not take any chances. She either pays the £3.50 an hour parking fee or her husband sits in the car all day with the blue badge while his wife has to manage without his help in the hospital. This is the everyday, practical knock-on effect of blue badge crime.

Victoria Brignell
May 2007

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.