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Only If They Think They Can Get Away with It?

Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety Adult supervision required.


How many times have you noticed someone who looks perfectly healthy using a parking space reserved for the handicapped at a busy shopping center? If this behavior gets you steamed, you might be interested in studying how to discourage handicapped parking cheaters. Is it enough to let them know someone might be watching?


The goal of this project is to find out if abuse of handicap parking privileges decreases if drivers are aware that they are being monitored.


Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies
Thanks to Courtney Corda for the project idea.


Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Only If They Think They Can Get Away with It?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Soc_p013.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Only If They Think They Can Get Away with It?. Retrieved March 31, 2015 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Soc_p013.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30


Have you ever watched the parking spaces reserved for handicapped/disabled folks and wondered how many people are using them legitimately? Sometimes the drivers seem mighty sprightly as they jump out of their cars to run a quick errand. Here's an idea for an experiment you might try to see what factors can change handicap-space parking behavior.

The idea is to start by gathering a baseline sample by observing the normal usage of handicapped-accessible parking spaces at a busy parking lot. Determine the total number of cars that use the spots, and how many of the cars have occupants that qualify them as legitimate users of the spots.

Next, put up a sign with a message to deter cheaters from using the spots. For example, the sign could say: "These parking spaces are being observed today as part of a Science Fair project. Please use these spaces only if you have a legitimate disability." Gather a second sample by observing the handicapped-accessible parking spaces as before. If multiple languages are commonly spoken in your area, you may want to consider making a bi-lingual or multi-lingual sign. In this case, choose the two or three languages most commonly spoken in your area.

Note that some drivers may have a disability, such as a heart condition, that is not clearly visible. Presumably the number of such drivers would be roughly constant in each sample. We do not suggest making any attempt to survey the users of the handicapped-accessible parking spaces. This is an observation-only study.

Do you think that placement of a sign informing drivers that the parking spots are being observed will have a deterrent effect on cheaters?

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
  • psychology of deterrence.
  • How important are the following factors in creating an effective deterrent:
    • severity of punishment,
    • probability of being caught,
    • probability of being observed.


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Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:
  • a busy parking lot with handicap-accessible parking spaces,
  • materials for making a sign,
  • a nearby location for discreet observation,
  • permission from the property owner or manager to conduct your experiment,
  • notebook and pencil for recording your results.

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Before you get started, please note the following precautions:
    1. Many busy parking lots are located on private property. Before you start your observations, be sure to obtain permission to conduct your study from the property owner and/or manager.
    2. Avoid confrontations with drivers. Have an adult accompany you while making your observations.
  2. Select a frequently-used parking lot with clearly signed handicap-accessible parking spaces.
  3. Observe usage of the reserved handicap-accessible parking spaces for enough time to collect a representative baseline sample.
    1. The amount of time required will depend on how frequently the spaces are used.
    2. To determine how many observations you need to make in order to have a reliable sample, see the Science Buddies resource Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?
  4. For each car that uses a space reserved for handicap parking, assign the car to a category based on the occupants of the car. For example, you might use categories such as the following (make a tick mark in the appropriate column):

    No handicap placard or plate
    (clear violator)
    Has handicap placard or plate,
    no visible handicap
    (potential violator)
    Has handicap placard or plate,
    visible handicap/disability
    (legitimate parker)

  5. You may think of additional categories. Perhaps you'll see someone pull into a handicap spot and then think better of it. The important thing is to categorize each car, and to do so consistently.
  6. Observe carefully, sometimes a driver might be picking up someone with a disability, which you won't see that until they come back to the car.
  7. After you've collected your baseline sample, place your sign(s) in a clearly visible location near the handicap-accessible spaces. Collect a second sample.
  8. From each of your tables, calculate the following:
    1. total number of cars parked,
    2. total number in each category,
    3. percentage of cars in each category.
  9. Does the percentages of cheaters decrease when drivers are being observed?
  10. More advanced students should determine the statistical significance of any changes with a t-test.

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  • Compare the effectiveness of different messages on the sign. For example, try "Thank you for not using the handicap-accessible parking space when you are not eligible!" (reward) vs. "This handicap-accessible parking space is being monitored today." (deterrent).
  • Try pitching your project with your local police department and see if you can get their cooperation for a third phase of your project. Pair the deterrent sign with a squad car parked right next to the handicap-accessible spaces and observe another sample of drivers. Deterrence is supposed to work better when there is a higher probability of being caught. Does the presence of the squad car affect the results?
  • How long does deterrence last? If your sign does decrease the percentage of violators, keep checking back over the next several days to see if the cheating rate returns to baseline.
  • Your local newspaper might be interested in your project. If they print an article on your project, does the additional publicity cause a lasting deterrent effect?
  • Can you come up with an estimate of how frequently people abuse the handicap spaces as a percentage of total parking lot use? Design a study to find out.

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Ask an Expert

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