What ‘when children are present’ means in a school zone

Many school zone signs note that the school zone is in effect “when children are present.”

But what does that mean?

It may seem like splitting hairs. But with police departments offering different rules for when school zones are in force, it’s worth a closer look.

The Washington Administrative Code spells it out — and the classroom and playground are not in there.

When a sign uses the “when children are present” language, the 20 mph speed limit is in force when children are in marked crosswalks, waiting at the curb or shoulder to cross the road, or are walking along the roadway on the sidewalk or shoulder.

This has been tested locally.

“The Marysville Municipal Court Judges have interpreted ‘present’ to mean on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk located in a school zone,” said Marysville Police Commander Robb Lamoureux. “The school zone speed does not apply to kids being on the playground behind a chain link fence.”

The presence of children often is just one condition of a school zone being in force, however.

If a beacon is flashing — or if it’s within a stated time period for the school zone — drivers still should slow down, even if children are cleared from the roadway.

For its part, the state is moving away from the “when children are present” verbiage.

The Washington State Department of Transportation handles school zone signage on state highways for cities with populations less than 25,000 and in unincorporated areas.

“WSDOT no longer uses the message ‘When Children Are Present’ primarily due to the confusion on when it is enforceable,” said Tom Pearce, a spokesman.

Past advice from Lamoureux — and other police departments we checked in with — urges drivers to slow down near schools, period.

“Our department enforces school zones during normal school hours,” Officer Aaron Snell said. But that’s not the only time for concern, he added.

“Even if lights don’t flash or school is not in session, drivers should be aware that children may be around the school and should slow for safety reasons.”

Lynnwood, which uses photo enforcement for some of its school zones, echoes the sentiment and urges drivers to slow down near schools at all times.

The “when children are present” is meant to capture those unpredictable times when students will be around, such as evening sports games or after-school activities, said Lisa Wellington, a crime prevention specialist for the Lynnwood Police Department. Darker months that make visibility harder are just another reason to go slow.

It really doesn’t take that long, she added.

“It will take the driver an extra 14 to 22 seconds of drive time to pass through” a school zone at the reduced speed, Wellington said. “Please take those few seconds to relax, be mindful of your surroundings and think of the children in your community and children everywhere.”

Have a question? Email us at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence. Look for updates on the Street Smarts blog.

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