Ah, the first of September. The promise of warm but not too hot days, and crisp nights. The beginning of football season and the end of pollen season. The changing color of the leaves, and $250 school zone tickets.
Yes, it is School Zone time.
Many schools are already in session, and the rest will be after Labor Day weekend. And while an officer may give a warning when they pull you over during that first week, they also may not, and Photo Ticket officers will not. This is what you need to know.
School Zones have a single purpose: the protection of children. Children because, being children, they may enter the roadway without paying the proper attention to traffic that an adult is expected to exhibit. In school zones the speed limit may be lowered when the zone is in effect, typically to 20 mph. School zones are governed by state statue, RCW 46.61.440, which says in part: “it shall be unlawful for the operator of any vehicle to operate the same at a speed in excess of twenty miles per hour when operating any vehicle upon a highway either inside or outside an incorporated city or town 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 speed zone at the crosswalk shall extend three hundred feet in either direction from the marked crosswalk.”
School zones therefore become “two-tier” conditional speed limit areas: a lower speed if a condition is met, a different, higher speed if not met. Notice of the condition is required to be marked or posted for a driver passing by on the roadway. The most common types of School Zone conditions are “When Lights are Flashing,” “When Children Are Present,” and “Time Limited,” although there are some School Zones in Eastern Washington that are active when a flag is displayed.
“When Lights are Flashing”
School Zones are active when a set of posted lights, normally yellow warning lights, are flashing on and off, and the lower speed limit and enhanced fines are in effect regardless of if there are children around or people coming and going. The flashing lights are set to turn on and off at specific time, and if the lights are on the School Zone is active.
“When Children Are Present”
“When Children are Present” signs indicate that if a child is near the roadway the School Zone becomes active. This means that the School Zone may be considered as active outside regular school hours as children may come and go at odd hours, or even weekends and in summer. “When Children Are Present” citations are issued on a somewhat subjective basis by an officer: is a child sufficiently close to the roadway, and are they in a location that they should have been seen by a reasonably observant driver. Some School Zones combine both forms of conditions: “When Lights are Flashing” set to be active during regular school hours and “When Children Are Present” providing notice to be aware children may be present outside those hours.
Time limited zones have warning signs that indicate that between certain hours the school zone is in effect. They may be in effect regardless of if the driver believes the school is in session or not, or if children are present or not.
A School Zone may also not be in immediate proximity to a school. Again, by statute, it must be within 300 feet of a school or playground property. The statute does allow for a crosswalk frequently used by by children, particularly across an arterial, to be a marked school zone, extending 300 feet on either side of the crosswalk. They are designated as a “School Crossing” and the traffic speed slowed using the conditional signs above. Speeds may also be reduced via conditional signs at Playgrounds
Remember that a school zone extends on BOTH SIDES of a school or crosswalk, so don’t immediately accelerate after you pass them. If you do not see a sign ending the zone, look for the warning sign for traffic moving in the opposite direction to make sure that you are clear.
School Zone Photo Cameras
Under RCW 46.63.170 there may also be video camera speeding ticket enforcement in a school zone. These require that a sign announcing the video camera is present be posted, and flashing yellow lights to indicate that the school zone is active. There are speed sensors that pick up a vehicle speed, and the camera establishes which vehicle it was. If in violation of the speed limit, the registered owner is mailed a ticket. The biggest difference from an officer issued ticket is that photo tickets are not placed on a drivers DOL abstract, even if the fine is paid without contesting it, similarly to a parking ticket but with a much heftier fine. A driver approaching a video enforced school zone should always slow to below the posted 20 mpg, in case their speedometer is inaccurate. And officer enforcing a school zone will often give a few mile per hour leeway so long as the speed is within a few miles of 20, just for this reason. Camera enforcement, on the other hand, are more likely to issue a ticket for just a mile or two over 20. A driver should also make sure that they have slowed down before passing the warning sign, as they may not know where the speed sensors and camera actually are. They may be right after the warning sign, or halfway through the school zone.
Any speeding infraction charged under RCW 46.61.440, for School and Playground Zones has the fine doubled from that of a standard speeding violation of the same speed over the posted limit. So a fine for doing 5 mph over the limit in a school zone with a standard fine of $129 can have an enhanced fine of $258. Also, by statute, this fine cannot be waived or reduced.
The best policy is that if you think that a School Zone may be active, is to treat it as active. Officers, prosecutors and judges treat these types of violations very seriously.
Any and all information contained herein is for the purposes of providing basic information and should not be relied on as being legal advice. The authors disclaim any and all liability for any reliance on such information. Use of this website does not create an attorney-client relationship. We recommend strongly that you seek professional legal advice directly from a properly retained Washington-licensed attorney or lawyer before relying on any information contained herein.