Ronald Howard thinks he knows why many of his neighbors who use a wheelchair spend so much time at home: Since a 1999 accident paralyzed him, he has spent countless hours cruising parking lots where handicapped spaces were filled by cars with no handicapped parking permit.
When Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold suggested in June that the county double the $100 fine for illegally parking in spots reserved for the disabled, Howard told the County Council that violators need a bigger hit in the wallet.
"I said that's not enough to make people stop doing it. The state limit is $500. I recommend that you take it all the way," the Linthicum Heights resident said,
This week, the $500 fine, passed by the County Council and signed by Leopold, took effect. And this weekend, parking lot scofflaws will feel the pinch.
Tomorrow through Sunday, police bolstered by reserve officers will increase patrols around businesses to check for compliance with handicapped parking laws, said acting Sgt. Sara Schriver, a county police spokeswoman.
Unlike an enforcement wave earlier this summer, police participating in "Operation Access" will issue $500 citations. "They will put fliers on every other vehicle near there as a way to educate - an FYI," Schriver said.
The $100 fine was on the low side of the range of nearby jurisdictions, and doubling it would have put the county toward the higher end, Leopold said. He supported the amendment to go to $500.
Leopold, a longtime advocate for the disabled, said he hasn't heard objections or complaints about the $500 fine, "but I have heard many complaints about disabled parking space abuse and I have seen angry confrontations."
County Council member Daryl D. Jones, who pledged during his election campaign last year to push for a ball field for disabled players, said the parking fine's aim is to help people who depend on those spaces.
"Hopefully, what it will do is preserve for the physically challenged in our county their parking spaces and their access to our facilities," he said.
Earlier this year, a field in the Glen Burnie area was temporarily designated for use by the Challenger League, comprised of disabled adults and children while plans are made for a permanent site and design.
Howard, 55, called the new law and enforcement a "start in the right direction."
But not enough, he said. He relies on a handicapped-accessible van since breaking his back in a fall while trying to help his neighbor remove a10-foot stump. Only a wider handicapped parking space marked for a van - and only about one in four handicapped spaces is - can accommodate his van because it has a wheelchair lift.
But any vehicle with a handicapped permit can use such a space. Howard would like to restrict van spaces to only vans as well as see more disabled-accessible parking spaces.
"I will keep pushing. I think it's the reason I survived my fall," he said.