Rules of the Road

Why do school zones exist in areas with no school nearby?

Cars drive down Fraser Street through a school zone on Friday, July 8, in Bellingham.
Cars drive down Fraser Street through a school zone on Friday, July 8, in Bellingham.

Question: Why do school zones exist in areas with no school nearby? I have noticed locations on Fraser Street and Orleans Street where it says school zones, yet there are no schools nearby. In both of these locations, the nearest public school is over a mile away, and numerous roads exist closer to the school that aren’t designated school zones.

Answer: Not that I don’t trust you, but I drove out to the locations you described, and I couldn’t find any schools nearby, either. At first I was as puzzled as you, so I reviewed RCW 46.61.440, the state law regarding school zones. I discovered that school zones come in two flavors.

Most frequently, school zones are the 20 mph areas found on roads that border a school. These zones extend up to 300 feet from the edge of the school property. As drivers, we all are (or should be) familiar with these school zones.

Less common is a school zone that is not directly adjacent to a school. The law provides for 20 mph school zones around “school crosswalks.” These school zones extend 300 feet from either side of the crosswalk. At first glance, you might think a school crosswalk is just a crosswalk that connects to the school campus. However, a school crosswalk can be quite a distance from a school, as long as it serves as a designated route for students walking to and from school.

The RCW doesn’t give a definition for a school zone, but the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which sets the national standard for traffic control, describes a school zone as “a designated roadway segment approaching, adjacent to, and beyond school buildings or grounds, or along which school-related activities occur.” What’s the most likely school-related activity that would happen on a road? Walking to and from school. Transportation planners can use school zones to protect one of our most vulnerable groups of road users, children walking to and from school, even beyond the borders of our school grounds.

I wanted to get some details regarding the specific school zones referenced in the question, so I spoke with a transportation coordinator at the city of Bellingham. These routes were identified as part of the school walk routes for students attending two Bellingham schools. The school zone on Fraser Street serves kids walking to Carl Cozier Elementary, and the one on Orleans Street is for kids headed to Sunnyland Elementary.

In the event that you’re looking to be the center of the conversation at your next dinner party, here are a couple of more fascinating school zone facts. Not every road bordering a school is a school zone. The RCW specifies that school zones should only include areas that are consistent with active school use. You can find an example of this at the Blaine school campus. The campus is nearly a rectangle, with roads bordering all four sides. Three sides of the campus are school zones with 20 mph speed limits. However, the east side of the campus borders State Route 543, more commonly referred to as the “truck route.” This one-mile highway connects Interstate 5 to the US/Canada truck border crossing, and is the route for pretty much every commercial freight carrier traveling up and down the West Coast. Fences and berms separate the truck route from the school campus along its entire east border, eliminating access to the school, so SR 543 is not a school zone.

For those of you who took time to look up the RCW on school zones, you probably noticed that it also applies to playgrounds. While I can’t recall encountering a 20 mph playground zone anywhere (except for playgrounds connected to schools), the law does make provision for it, so as a driver, it’s good to be aware that the possibility is out there. Be wise, and drive safe.

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