The Parent Trap: “Parking Wars” with the kids in tow

I can’t help it – I like Garfield.

Faithful viewers of the A&E cable television series Parking Wars know of whom I speak. Garfield is one of the many interesting and loveable – yes, I said lovable – characters whose day-to-day lives working for the Philadelphia Parking Authority are put on display for the viewing public. Garfield and his partner Sherry travel the streets of Philadelphia, booting vehicles owned by motorists who owe a lot of money for parking and other violations. Needless to say, they encounter their fair share of angry citizens along the way.

It is the televised altercations that are captured on video while booting, towing and waiting in line at the impound lot that has brought the Parking Authority and Parking Wars under fire in recent weeks. The show was blamed Sunday in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial for potentially hurting the city’s tourism industry. One angry reader called the Parking Authority a “disgrace,” and demanded that it be overhauled.

I understand being mad at the Parking Authority. I’ve been there.

My experience began on a beautiful day in March. I was driving my children to Center City for a day of sightseeing. This was a highly anticipated trip in my household. Promises were made based on midterm grades, and I wasn’t going to disappoint.

Traffic was backed up on I-95, so we were traveling on Roosevelt Boulevard. I was being careful not to exceed the speed limit and run any red lights, and was surprised when I saw the flashing lights of a police car behind me. Thinking that they wanted me out of the way, I pulled over to the shoulder. Imagine my surprise when the patrol car pulled behind me.

“Did you know that your registration is expired?” the highway patrolman asked. It sounds silly now, but the truth is that I thought my wife had sent the paperwork in, while she thought that I had taken care of the situation. So the car’s registration was one month overdue. Well, I figured, this will result in a nasty ticket and we can get on our way. That’s when the tow truck arrived.

In retrospect, we all could have handed the situation better. The police officer could have told me that my car was going to be towed before the tow truck arrived. I could have kept my temper. My kids didn’t have to start crying on the sidewalk, as they saw their trip downtown ruined.

It’s interesting that a driver caught speeding is given a ticket and sent on his way, while a person driving legally with an expired registration sticker (one month late!) gets towed. But those are the rules, the officer told me, as he successfully calmed me down.

Anyone who has been in this situation knows the drill. I went home and quickly registered my car. Then I went to traffic court, where you quickly realize that your problems are nothing compared to defendants who owe so much money to the Authority that lawyers become involved and payment plans are devised. I paid my fine, court costs and parking fees, then traveled to the impound lot and paid again. My car was released, all for a tidy sum. Now some might look at this experience as a day wasted, but I learned a costly lesson. I will never be late with my registration again.

I also learned something else. The Parking Authority wasn’t the problem – I was. And while I still believe that towing my car was excessive, I also must admit that I was in the wrong. And the Parking Authority, with one exception, was courteous and helpful.

That’s what you learn while watching Parking Wars. To paraphrase Mr. Shakespeare, the fault is not with the show’s stars, but with ourselves. Citizens and yes, some tourists, get towed, booted and ticketed because they have done the wrong thing, often owing the taxpayers of this city thousands of dollars in the process. Getting angry at the Parking Authority is simply deflecting blame from the true culprit.

So don’t continue to blame a television show and a government agency for showing the city in a bad light and hurting tourism. If you want to play the blame game, some of us need to look in the mirror.

The Parent Trap is a weekly column by Patrick P. McNally that will appear on every Tuesday. See others here. Read other NEast Philly columns here.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal