Fairfax County’s Commission on Aging rolls out “empathy signs” for accessible parking spots

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According to the Fairfax County Commission on Aging, Fairfax County police issue about 200 to 300 citations each year against cars parked illegally in handicap-accessible parking spots. That statistic doesn’t include drivers who borrow handicap placards.

Last year, the commission tried an intrinsic motivator with its empathy parking signs. Commission member Mike Perel says the county’s extrinsic motivator — a $500 fine, recently raised from $250 — hasn’t made a dent in such parking citations.

The commission’s “empathy parking” signs feature a man in a wheelchair, accompanied by the phrase, “Think of me, keep it free,” or “Think of me, park legally.” In a study, with the help of George Mason University student volunteers, the commission found the signs made a difference in driver behavior.

The study took two observations into account; violations and hesitations (when a driver pulls into an accessible parking space, sees the sign, and pulls out). The commission observed a small parking lot for two weeks without the signs, two weeks with the signs, and two weeks following the signs’ removal. 

“What they found, even in the small study, was a reduction in violations by about 40 percent and an increase in hesitations by about 30 percent,” said Perel.

Perel realizes the small study isn’t exactly statistically significant, but he points out the commission confirmed the trend it hypothesized, and the results are consistent with other experiments across the country.

The change is relatively inexpensive, says Perel, and it’s a good option for owners of parking lots who regularly receive complaints about drivers parking illegally.

The commission is spreading the word about its signs. Perel is working with the Jewish Community Center to install the signs in its parking lot in the near future. 

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