Research In Focus: A Weekly Digest of New Research from the NIDILRR Community

Nowhere to park your accessible van: Augmented signage may increase access to van-accessible parking spaces

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

Driving is a key to independence for many Americans, including Americans with disabilities. Whether they drive a standard vehicle or a modified one equipped with a ramp or lift, many drivers with disabilities can obtain permits to park in designated accessible parking spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) indicates specific requirements for these parking spaces such as the number of accessible parking spaces to be set aside in a lot, signage and ground markings, and designated parking spaces for standard vehicles as well as for vans equipped with ramps or lifts. Van-accessible parking spaces include enough space for a ramp or lift to extend so a wheelchair user can safely exit the car and move out of the traffic lanes. Accessible spaces for standard vehicles are not wide enough to be used by ramp- or lift-equipped vans safely.

Standard ADA accessible parking sign - blue with a white border, featuring the international wheelchair symbol and the words accessible parking

Currently, any driver with an accessible parking permit may park in any designated accessible spaces including the van-accessible spaces, regardless of whether or not they drive a ramp- or lift-equipped vehicle. Usually, fewer van-accessible spaces are available than standard spaces. Frequently, these larger spaces are placed closer to entrances and are first to be occupied. If drivers of standard vehicles park in these spaces, it can cause inconvenience and safety concerns for drivers of ramp- or lift-equipped vehicles. Parking in a standard space that is too small may leave no room to extend a ramp or lift, or for a person wheel out safely beyond it. Drivers of ramp- or lift-equipped vehicles may be forced to park farther away from the entrance and occupy additional spaces to be able to extend their ramp or lift safely. In a recent NIDILRR-funded study, researchers tested a set of different accessible parking signs designed to encourage drivers of standard vehicles to leave the van-accessible spaces open to ramp- and lift-equipped vehicles only. The researchers want to see whether signs augmented with additional information or messages would deter people in standard vehicles without ramps or lifts from parking in van-accessible spaces and therefore increasing the availability of van-accessible parking spaces for drivers with ramp- or lift-equipped vehicles.

Four parking signs. Each includes an overhead image of a large vehicle with the international wheelchair symbol on the roof and a ramp extended with a wheelchair symbol at the end of the ramp. All four feature the words ramp or lift equipped van. The second sign includes the text please be courteous. The third includes the text priority. The fourth includes the text warning.

Researchers at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Community Living conducted an observational study comparing the established ADA-accessible parking space signs  with four augmented test signs depicting ramp-equipped vehicles. The four sign options were developed with input from a focus group held before the study. All featured an image of a van with a ramp extended and the words “Ramp or lift equipped.” Three of the four signs had additional text: “Please be courteous,” “Priority,” and “Warning.” The researchers conducted hour-long observations in the parking lots of two grocery stores in well-developed commercial districts in a Midwestern community. Both parking lots had ADA-compliant accessible parking spaces near the store entrance and had relatively high parking turnover within a one-hour period. The researchers focused their observations on two of the ADA-accessible parking spaces at each location: One space was designated as “van accessible” and the other was a regular ADA-compliant parking space for standard vehicles. Both spaces at each parking lot were marked with the international accessible symbol painted on the ground and upright signs at the front of the space indicating “accessible parking” or “disabled parking”. The van-accessible space was wider and included a larger striped access lane, and also included the phrase “van-accessible” on the sign. They watched as drivers parked a variety of vehicles in the two spaces.

The researchers conducted more than 160 observations during high-traffic peak shopping hours in the morning and evening. First, they watched the spaces with the standard signs for a number of one-hour sessions and counted the number of times someone in a standard vehicle parked in a van-accessible space and the number of times someone in a standard vehicle was “deterred” from parking in the van-accessible space per session. “Deterred” meant that the driver attempted to park but backed out of the van-accessible space and parked in another regular accessible space instead. Next, the researchers replaced the signs for the van-accessible spaces with one of four different signs and watched the drivers’ responses for a number of one-hour sessions. The same process was repeated for each remaining sign to see which of the augmented signs were most effective at deterring drivers of standard vehicles from parking in the van-accessible spaces. Last, the researchers selected the most effective augmented sign for each location and conducted additional hour-long observations to compare each sign with the standard signage.

The researchers found that:

  • At both stores, the standard sign was not effective at deterring drivers of vehicles without ramps or lifts from parking in the van-accessible space.
  • At Store A, all four augmented signs had some effect on deterring inappropriate parking, but the “Please be courteous” sign was most effective, deterring up to an average of 30% of drivers. The “Warning” sign was the least effective, deterring only an average of 4% of drivers in a session.
  • At Store B, the “Warning” sign was most effective, deterring up to an average of 35% of parkers in a session. The “Priority” sign was less effective while the other two signs did not work at all.

According to the authors, this study demonstrated that augmented signs with additional messages, such as the ones developed for this study, are moderately more effective at deterring drivers from parking in the van-accessible spaces than standard signs currently in use. As a result, these augmented signs could increase the availability of van-accessible spaces for those who need them most. The authors noted that drivers responded differently to the signs at each location. There were some differences between the two locations: Store A was locally owned with lower prices than Store B, a national chain; therefore, it attracted more customers and more traffic. With more people entering and exiting the store, drivers may have felt more exposed and experienced increased social pressure to “be courteous” as the augmented sign directed. The authors reported that some drivers could have been deterred from parking in both locations but were not recorded: The observers for this study only counted drivers who attempted to park in a van space, then moved elsewhere. They were not able to count people who may have seen the new sign and just driven past without trying to pull into the space.

The authors noted several reasons why drivers who have an accessible parking permit may not park in the most appropriate space for their vehicle. Those drivers may not be aware of the difference between the types of accessible spaces; they may opt for the closest space to the entrance, which is often the van-accessible space; some drivers or passengers may have assistive devices that also need more space when getting in and out of the vehicle; and there are no legal consequences to occupying a van- accessible space so long as the vehicle has a valid permit. For future studies, researchers may want to gather more input from drivers with accessible parking permits who use vehicles with and without ramps or lift equipment in rural and urban areas, and to observe parking habits in diverse settings (hospitals, campus, etc.) to develop signage that works across settings. Educating new drivers who apply for accessible parking permits may also be effective in reducing inappropriate use of van-accessible parking spaces. Communities may wish to revise public policies to provide a clearer definition of a van-accessible space and to decide on potential consequences for those who park inappropriately. Finally, a universal design of accessible parking spaces (i.e., making all accessible parking spaces van accessible) would accommodate people with disabilities with a range of parking needs.  

To Learn More

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Community Living has a diverse collection of factsheets and guides to encourage full participation of people with disabilities in the community including

  • Fact Sheet:  Encouraging Reservation of Van-Designated Spaces for Lift- or Ramp-Equipped Van Users, which includes more on this study.
  • Brochure: Accessible Parking Etiquette: Honor the Aisles!

The ADA National Network of 10 regional centers assists public and private entities in understanding their rights and responsibilities under the ADA. Find your regional center by calling 800/949-4232 or visiting .

To Learn More About this Study

Zhang, E., and White, G.W. (2017) Analyzing the effects of different signs to increase the availability of designated van-accessible parking spaces . Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, 45(2), 138-150. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J76045.

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