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How Can We Stop Handicap Fraud?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on January 10, 2011.

How Can We Stop Handicap Fraud?
By Ian Ayres ’86

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 HandicappedFraud.org which even offers a handy iPhone app where citizens can report 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.

Ian Ayres is a professor of law and economics at Yale. Follow @freakonomics on Twitter.