Linked to a new national database of eligible badge-holders, the revamped badges will make it much easier for police and enforcement officers to spot so-called 'space invaders' : those who abuse the system to park illegally in designated spaces and cause massive inconvenience - and sometimes physical pain - to disabled drivers and passengers.
The official launch of the new badges takes place at Cardiff City Stadium today, aided by Cardiff Blues rugby players, who will be 'picking up' and moving illegitimately parked cars to raise awareness of the problem.
In Wales there are around 230,000 blue badges in use and 2.5million across the UK. An official UK Government report has pointed to widespread abuse of the system either through forgery of badges or use of badges by those not entitled to use them. In addition to the negative impact this has on disabled people, the report estimated that fraudulent or improper use of these badges also costs the UK a total of £46million a year in parking fee evasion.
Also helping launch the new-style badges today is disabled ex-serviceman and badge holder, Paul Davies, 49, from Bargoed. Former Royal Welch Fusilier Paul, who received an MBE in 2011 for services to rugby and army veterans, was paralysed from the waist down after being injured in a military rugby game in 1983. Paul says he encounters 'space invaders' on a regular basis.
He said:" Drivers take no notice of the signs, either because of laziness or ignorance of how difficult it really can be for a disabled person to park in a normal space.
"Our car has been fitted with a ramp, so more narrow spaces are just not an option for me. If there are no disabled spots free, my wife has to stop in the road while the ramp goes down and I get out. The ramp then has to go back up again, I get out of the way, and then my wife has to park the car in the space. Apart from being a long-winded process, this holds up traffic, which is frustrating for other drivers, and really embarrassing for me. I wish drivers would take the time to spare a thought for our situation."
Abuse of the blue badge scheme includes making fraudulent copies as well as using a disabled person's badge when they aren't present. The new badges carry a range of security features that are being kept top-secret to ensure that they remain robust against forgery, and will make it easier for attendants to check details through the windscreen.
Speaking at the launch Communities Minister Carl Sargeant said: "When people abuse blue badges, or use disabled parking spaces they're not entitled to, they are seriously affecting the quality of life of those individuals who legitimately carry badges. Blue badges allow people in genuine need to live independent lives, and by invading blue badge spaces, other drivers are actually causing not just great inconvenience to the disabled person, but also physical pain."
All new blue badges will be phased in over the next three-years as and when current holders renew their badges. They will be made of plastic, electronically printed, and carry a photo and information that will be stored on a central database. This will mean that enforcement officers can check information on not just blue badge holders from their local authority area, but from anywhere across the UK, making abuse of the system much harder. Previously, blue badges were made of cardboard and hand-written, making them much easier to fake or use inappropriately.
The new blue badge scheme is part of the Welsh Government's 'A Modern Blue Badge for Wales Action Plan.' The redesigned badge in Wales has been standardised with other parts of the UK after local authorities said this would make enforcement easier. Using the badges illegally carries a maximum penalty of £1000.
Chief executive of Disability Wales, Rhian Davies welcomed the measures saying: "The blue badge is a lifeline for many disabled people who simply would not be able to complete day-to-day activities without it. Any measures that will go towards clamping down on the illegal use of disabled spaces, that hinder the wellbeing of those in genuine need, is very welcome."
Martyn Williams, ex-Wales rugby international and Cardiff Blues player who was involved in the launch said, "We're really proud to be involved in this campaign to try and raise awareness of the problems that some people with disabilities face in daily, run-of-the-mill situations that we might take for granted. If you're in a rush you might think that using a disabled space for a quick half hour won't do any harm, but it does. You're taking out somebody else's space."
The new badge and data sharing system has been developed by Northgate Information Solutions and Payne Security.