School zone signs inconsistent

Carole Berkoff of Lynnwood writes: I am confused by the school zone signs. Some signs say 20 mph when lights are blinking or when children are present. If the lights are not blinking how do you know that children are present?

In Idaho I saw times posted on the school zone signs so I knew that between these hours the speed zone was enforced. With activities scheduled before and after school it is difficult to assume when or not children are present. I have found quite a variety in school zone signs.

Sometimes you enter a school zone and then there is no sign telling you that there is an end of school zone or speed limit sign. If you want to stay within the speed limit, and you always go 20 mph in school zones, many drivers are quite explicit in their annoyance with you. It would be nice if there was more uniformity between cities and county school signs for school zones.

Brian Jones, program director for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, responds: School zones can be marked in a variety of ways. State laws (WAC 392-151-035 and RCW 46.61.440) govern school zones speeds and enforcement. The school zones themselves are 600 feet in length — 300 feet in each direction from the crosswalk.

The Traffic Safety Commission is working with the state Department of Transportation, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and local communities to standardize signs in elementary schools by providing grant funds for the purchase of school zone flashing lights.

These lights flash only when the 20 mph school zone speed limit is in effect and are shown to be the most effective in reducing speeds of vehicles in school zones. In November we awarded more than $430,000 in grant funds to address this issue, in addition to the $1.2 million awarded in early 2009.
The funds for these projects come from the fines imposed on drivers who speed in school zones.

To specifically address the question; if the lights on the signs are not blinking then the 20 mph limit is not on effect, unless other signs are present — this is typically not the case. The definition of “when children are present” is also contained in the WAC document.
Dongho Chang, traffic engineer for the city of Everett, chimes in: I agree that school speed zone signs can be confusing due to the different messages that are used to notify drivers when the speed zone is in effect.

The most easily understandable message is to use a yellow flasher with a “when flashing” label. However, the goal of the speed zone is reducing vehicle speeds when children are walking to and from school.

Many cities and counties use “when children are present” and “when flashing” together to reduce speeds if the flasher malfunctions or is not activated for a school event. Everett will work with Snohomish County to improve uniformity for school speed zone signs.

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