Area law enforcement officials say drivers who forget to display their handicap placards constitute a bigger problem than those who intentionally violate parking laws aimed at ensuring access.
According to the Oklahoma State Statute, Title 47, Section 15-111, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety issues official disability parking permits. Those must be renewed every five years, and temporary permits may be issued.
In Oklahoma, two separate agencies are involved with issuing placards and plates. The DPS is in charge of issuing permanent and temporary permits, while the Oklahoma Tax Commission issues disability license plates and disabled veterans license plates. To qualify for disabled parking, the applicant must have a medical professional verify a qualifying disability.
Individuals who wish to obtain a disability parking permit must be: certified legally blind; missing one or more limbs to impair mobility; unable to walk 200 feet without stopping to rest; unable to walk without assistance from a cane, wheelchair, or assistant device; using portable oxygen; or afflicted with neurological disease or chronic inflammatory disease.
A medical professional will need to fill in part of the Physical Disability Parking Placard Application form. The applicant must submit the form to DPS within 60 days of the medical professional's signing it.
To get a disabled license plate, the applicant must first get a permanent placard, and fill out the Physically Disabled License Plate form. That form is sent to the OTC.
On a Feb. 15 Tahlequah Daily Press Saturday Forum on Facebook, readers were asked whether Tahlequah needed more handicapped parking, and if so, where it should be installed.
Aubrey Stout said not only does the city need more spaces, but it needs upgraded signage and painted markings. Doyle Murphy agreed, saying he accidentally parked in a handicap spot when he couldn't see the faded paint markings after dark.
"There are quite a few of those in Tahlequah, and I believe I am not the only one who parked in these things accidentally. It would help if they were repainted by whoever is responsible for the maintenance," said Murphy.
Readers were also asked what the penalty should be for those who park in handicapped spots without appropriate credentials.
Bob Ford said there should be a $250-$500 fine, and those funds should go toward the police department.
Kim Hewett pointed out that the yellow diagonal stripes are not for parking, as many seem to think.
"That space isn't designated as an alternative parking space. It is to allow room for the handicapped person to have room to maneuver in and out of their vehicle," said Hewett.
"Wheelchair-bound people need room to have access to their vehicles."
According to the statute, the DPS is to recognize Veterans Administration and federal military base disability stickers for purposes of handicap parking.
The state statute indicates it is unlawful for someone to park a vehicle in any space designated for those who are disabled.
"Unless such person has applied for and has been issued a detachable placard indicating physical disability under the provisions of Section 15-112 of this title," the individual may not use the space, the parking law states.
It is unlawful for anyone with or without a permit to park in a space accessible to a wheelchair ramp or wheelchair loading/unloading area. Vehicles in violation of handicap parking laws can be towed at the request of anyone unable to gain access to or move the vehicle, or at the request of law enforcement officers.
According to Tahlequah's city ordinances, it is the duty of the police department or officers assigned by the chief of police to enforce all street traffic laws.
Police Chief Nate King said the law is strictly enforced, and for the most part, people who aren't disabled are "scared" to park in a handicap space.
"What we run into a lot in Tahlequah is private handicap spaces not being marked properly by regulation," he said. "It's not enough to just paint it blue and have a wheelchair included; you have to have a sign, and that's technically an argument for someone in court, but that doesn't make it right."
The chief said he sees many handicapped people leaving their placards in the the vehicle, but not displayed properly.
"When we do camp out on somebody for their vehicle being parked in a handicap zone, they end up having their placard in the glove box. It is an actual handicapped person, but the placard isn't displayed," King said.
He added that those who forget to display their placards are given verbal warnings and sent on their way. A Tahlequah police officer said they have never issued a citation for parking violations, and it's rare to do so.
Cherokee County Deputy Court Clerk Wanita Falk said the fine for violating handicap parking laws is $548, and it's a rare occurrence.
"It's few and far between; we don't see a lot of them like we used to," said Falk.
Placards and plates from all other U.S. states are valid in Oklahoma, so visitors do not need to get temporary disabled placards.
As of Thursday morning, a handful of new handicap spaces were created in the downtown area on West Delaware Street and North Muskogee Avenue.
Tahlequah Planning and Development Director Clinton Johnson, who just resigned from his position this week, said there has been very little room for handicap parking downtown.
"There's not handicap parking on Muskogee Avenue in downtown, and from my understanding, the bumpouts were handicap spots but they never met code," he said. "You have to have ramp accessibly and signage.
Comments about enforcement of handicap parking policies were not returned from Reasor's or Walmart by press time.
The Daily Press asked readers on its website how much enforcement should there be to ensure that only handicapped people use parking spaces created for them. Thirty-eight respondents called for rigid enforcement, including heavy fines or even towing, or fairly strict enforcement, with smaller fines but heavier penalties for repeat offenders. Thirteen said fairly relaxed enforcement should be implemented, starting with warnings and smaller fines for repeat offenders. Nine respondents wanted little to no enforcement; no citations, but perhaps friends warnings not by officers, but rather by store owners. Seven even suggested handicapped spaces should be eliminated because they are too often abused.