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Figuring out Washington’s confusing rules for driving in school zones

Understanding speed limits in school zones can be confusing. (Dave Dugdale, Flickr Creative Commons)

School zones: When are they active and when are they not?

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KIRO Radio listener Patricia Doyle emailed us last week asking for help on this. She wrote:

Some people are complaining that they’ve been ticketed for speeding in school zones at times when school is not in session and/or kids are not present. Some school zone traffic signs include a flashing light or say “when children are present,” and other signs don’t include these qualifiers. What are the rules? Thanks for helping my neighborhood resolve this question.

First let me give you a disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and I am not a police officer. This is only what I have been able to glean by asking around and doing some research.

State law is clear on the basics, stating that you must go 20 miles an hour when passing any marked school or playground crosswalk, when such marked crosswalk is fully posted with standard school speed limit signs or standard playground speed limit signs.

The rule is clearly marked in the driver’s manual, in section 4-3, that unless otherwise posted, the speed limit in a school zone is 20 miles an hour.

But here’s the problem: The rules allow for every jurisdiction to determine when and how they enforce those school zones. The law allows for cities to add “when children are present” to their school zones, meaning that the 20 miles an hour is only in play when children are present.

But what does that mean?

If there’s an event at school on a Sunday, does 20 miles an hour apply? Does it apply in the summer? I have seen reports that at least one judge in this state has ruled that 20 miles an hour is 20 miles an hour, 24-7, 365 days a year.

Some jurisdictions, like Seattle, consider the 20 miles an hour to be in effect during all school hours.

Complicating matters are school zones with flashing lights because every jurisdiction has the ability to use them how they want. Some cities only have them flash during the walk before and after school. Some have the lights on all day.

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If you are in a school zone and the lights are flashing, whether there are kids around or not, you should go 20 miles an hour, or you are risking a ticket.

I wish I had a more definitive answer for our listener Patricia and the rest of you, but there is no clear answer, except that should lower your speed in school zones during the day out of general caution. You never know when there might be kids around, or when cops are around.

If you want to know for sure, check with your local police department to see how it interprets the law and when it considers the school zone speed limits active.

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