School Zones – What Does “When Children Are Present” Really Mean?”

Q: I always wonder about what “when children are present” on school zone signs means. Does that mean just during school hours or any time you see children? Also does it apply during school hours during the summer vacation (and how are we to know the vacation times?)

A: I thought this would be easy to answer, but it turns out that reading the law about school zone speed limits confuses as much as it clarifies. There’s a good reason many school zones are getting updated with flashing beacons instead of the “when children are present” plaque. But let’s get back to the question.

Before we tackle Washington state law, let’s dig into the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). This eight-hundred-plus page manual gives states guidance on when, where and how to place traffic signs. When it comes to school zones, the MUTCD approves several options including listing hours the 20 MPH speed limit is in effect, a “when flashing” plaque, and the “when children are present” plaque. (Technically, the big rectangle with a speed limit on it is is a sign and the small white rectangle below it is a plaque.)

The MUTCD doesn’t define what “when children are present” means, but our legislators added some language in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) to explain it. There are three situations when the plaque is in effect:

  • When school children are in the school zone crosswalk
  • When school children are waiting at the curb to cross the roadway on the crosswalk
  • When school children are walking on the sidewalk or shoulder of the road in a school zone

Although it seems a reasonable assumption, I cannot find anything in our state’s laws that would limit the time the “when children are present” plaque is in effect to school days or even the school year. However, there is an optional plaque that reads “all year” implying that a school zone without the “all year” plaque is only in effect during the school year. Notice that I just used forms of “assume” and “imply” in the previous sentences; not words we like to hear when trying to understand the law.

Just for fun, let’s make it even more confusing. Does “school children” mean children of school age or just children attending the school where the school zone is located? Admittedly, that’s a petty distinction and you’d be a cold-hearted driver to only slow down for children you knew attended that school. A more realistic scenario might be a driver trying to decide, at a distance, if that young person walking down the sidewalk is still in high school and headed to class or someone who has already graduated and is walking to work.

These are the sort of questions that have prompted many traffic engineers to switch to flashing beacons in school zones. If the sign indicates that the speed limit is 20 MPH when flashing, and the light is flashing, it’s pretty hard to misunderstand the message.

Given that the MUTCD gives road designers the option to specify a time of day that the school zone speed limit is in effect, and the sign doesn’t have that plaque below it, I’d conclude that if you see a school-aged child on a crosswalk or roadside in a school zone, the speed limit is in effect.

For drivers, vehicle speed is a key factor in the likelihood of a crash. Faster speeds leave less time for reactions. For pedestrians, vehicle speed is the key factor to survivability in a crash. The risk of a pedestrian being killed in a crash doubles when the speed limit increases from 20 MPH to 25 MPH.  At 35 MPH, a typical speed on an arterial or county road, the risk is nearly five times that of a 20 MPH zone.

Armed with that knowledge, we may just want to make a practice of driving slower in school zones all the time. Not because the law always requires it, but because it’s a low-cost investment (a few seconds) with a big payoff (reduced crash risk and higher pedestrian survival rates). In a quarter-mile school zone, driving 20 MPH instead of 25 MPH adds 9 seconds to your travel time.

Bonus alert: With students returning to school, local law enforcement agencies in Whatcom and Skagit Counties will be participating in extra speed enforcement patrols, focusing on frequently used routes to schools and high-crash areas. Paying attention to the speed limit saves lives, and it can also save you some cash.


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