Rules of the Road

Here’s how far the law says a school zone extends beyond a school or crosswalk

School zone sign in front of Carl Cozier Elementary on Lincoln Street in Bellingham. School zones require drivers to slow down to 20 mph. The zone extends at least 300 feet beyond a school or a crosswalk to help keep younger pedestrians safe.
School zone sign in front of Carl Cozier Elementary on Lincoln Street in Bellingham. School zones require drivers to slow down to 20 mph. The zone extends at least 300 feet beyond a school or a crosswalk to help keep younger pedestrians safe.

Question: Heading west on Fraser Street, off of Woburn, there is a school speed limit 20 mph sign and a flashing light. There is no sign indicating where the school zone ends, so I usually assume it ends where the school zone sign starts on the opposite side of the road (the sign for drivers heading east). Where does it really end? And why isn’t there a sign?

Answer: We all know what a school zone is, right? It’s that area around a school where kids walk. Or is it?

To understand where a school zone ends, we should all start by working from the same definition for what a school zone is. According to Washington law, there are a couple of ways to define a school zone; crosswalks and school boundaries.

We’ll work backwards and begin with the second scenario in the law, school boundaries, since it’s probably what we usually think of when we hear “school zone.” This would be the speed zone applied to roads that border a school or playground. The 20 mph speed limit begins and ends 300 feet from the edge of the school or playground property.

The first example the law lists for a school zone is actually for crosswalks that students use to get to school. Often these crosswalks are at or near a school, but they could also be part of a designated school route, even if they’re blocks away. Again, the area where the speed limit is reduced extends 300 feet in each direction of the crosswalk.

Both kinds of school zones have the 300-foot rule, so once you pass either a school zone crosswalk or the edge of the school property you have another football field to go before you’re out of the school zone. If you’re from anywhere besides America, you can use a soccer pitch as your measurement. If you can’t stand sports, it’s about 10 seconds of driving at 20 mph. If none of those methods make sense to you, you might want to just walk or ride the bus.

If we assume that the signs marking the start of the school zone were installed 300 feet away from a crosswalk or school property, then using the method you described in your question – observing a school zone sign on the opposite side of the road as you’re heading away from the school – would be a good indicator of the end of the school zone. There’s that cliché about assumptions, but in this case it’s a pretty safe bet.

Now, to answer the last part of your question, “Why isn’t there a sign?” The easiest answer is that there isn’t a sign because the rules don’t require one.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is basically the rule book for road signs in North America. States may legislate some deviations to suit their needs, but it pretty much sets the rules for how and where to put signs, signals and markings on the roads. In the section on school zones it states that if an area is identified as a school zone, a sign “shall be installed to identify the beginning point(s) of the designated school zone.” “Shall” is the key word here; it makes it a requirement.

On the opposite end, the MUTCD says that “the downstream end of a designated school zone may be identified with an “END SCHOOL ZONE” sign.” The word “may” means that the sign at the end of the school zone is optional.

While we’re on the topic of 20 mph zones, I’ll mention that two major cities in our region have recently lowered speed limits in neighborhoods from 25 mph to 20 mph – Seattle (in 2016) and Portland (last month).

Why’d they do it?

Physics. It’s that whole mass and speed thing. According to Portland Bureau of Transportation, a pedestrian hit at 25 mph is nearly twice as likely to die as someone hit at 20 mph. They also point out that about a third of their fatal and serious injury crashes occur on neighborhood streets.

I don’t know if we’ll see 20 mph speed limits for our neighborhoods any time soon, or if there is even a will to make it happen. I will say that I was in Portland last weekend, and judging by the number of “20 is plenty” signs that people had put in their yards, the city has a lot of community support.

To circle back to the topic of school zones, it would certainly make it easier to travel at the correct speed through them if we’re already going 20 mph. Safer neighborhoods, fewer expensive school zone tickets; is that a win-win?

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.