Winnipeggers are getting dinged more often for parking in handicapped spots -- in part because the city has added about 40 new disabled-only spaces, mostly downtown.
More than 7,400 tickets were handed out last year, according to the Winnipeg Parking Authority's ticket database.
That's up 114 per cent over 2007 and the trend appears to be permanent. So far this year, more than 3,800 tickets for handicapped-parking violations have been doled out. If the trend continues, even more people will receive tickets this year than last.
It's the WPA's most serious violation and carries the heftiest fine. Most offenders were charged $100, but the base fine was recently hiked to $150. If you don't pay the ticket within 15 days, the fine increases to a whopping $350.
And there are 40 new places to get nabbed.
The city recently added a bunch of metered parking spots meant only for disabled drivers. Most are located downtown, in front of the Winnipeg Clinic, the Law Courts, the Medical Arts building, the legislature and the Canada Revenue Agency building.
"The point of disabled-only spaces is to provide access to people who really need it," said Colin Stewart, the parking authority's manager of strategic planning and special projects.
Not only are there more spaces, the parking officers have been asked to be more vigilant in ticketing motorists who park illegally in handicapped spaces -- possibly the rudest of all offences.
Colleen Sangster got dinged with a $150 ticket earlier this month because she didn't see the sign overhead. She says the city needs to paint the street or sidewalk and put signs at eye level so motorists are well-warned, especially now that there are so many new spots.
"If these parking spots are to exist (and I believe they should), they should be marked on the street or with low signs just like in the good old days," she said. "I had no idea these spots even existed."
Though disabled people now have more designated parking spots, they also have to pay for the first time in years. No longer are meters free for anyone with a blue tag hanging from their mirror.
"I don't think it was meant as a service to us, I think it was meant as a cash grab," said Valerie Rychliski, a former nurse who suffers from arthritis. "When you have problems with walking, everything takes you longer. Life in general is just more difficult. The free, four-hour parking was one of the few things for people with handicaps that was really a nice little thing."
Many jurisdictions -- including Toronto and Edmonton -- give disabled permit-holders free parking at any meter.
But Stewart said it's a misperception that people with blue tags could once park for free at city meters. In fact, according to the 1974 parking bylaw, the disabled were always obliged to pay for two hours of parking but they received two hours free on top of that.
But, with the old-style metal meters that couldn't issue a time-stamped ticket, it was impossible for parking officers to tell if a disabled person was playing by the rules. Did they only pay for an hour even though the car has been parked for three? Has the car been parked for three hours and is entitled to another free one? So, the bylaw was never really enforced.
"The practice and the perception has grown up that is was free," said Stewart.
And, if disabled parking permit-holders got free meter parking all the time, there would be more abuse, which is already a chronic problem.
As the Free Press detailed last summer, perfectly healthy people often use permits belonging to disabled family members, passes remain in circulation long after the holder has died or no longer needs it and motorists frequently park in the disabled spots with no permit at all.
"The abuse of handicapped spaces is a problem nationally," said Stewart. "When parking people get together, it's always one of the things we talk about how to deal with."