'When children are present' regulations lead to confusion

"Pop quiz: Let's say you're driving past a school zone, marked with a particular sign indicating that 20 mmiles per hour is the appropriate speed limit when children are present, while the regular posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour. Let's say, too, there aren't any students anywhere near the roadway, crosswalk, sidewalk or shoulder. But school is still in session, so students could be in classrooms or on a nearby playground. Does that mean children are present?Do you go ahead and slow down to 20, or continue to drive at the regular speed limit?According to state law, children are not, by definition, present in this fictional scenario, so drivers can adhere to the regularly posted speed limit.If you're confused, you're not alone.Sen. Bob Oke (R-Port Orchard) recently found as much to be true when South Kitsap resident Jim Cole, concerned drivers were being unfairly ticketed in South Kitsap and elsewhere, asked the senator to investigate school zone speed enforcement.Following talks with the Washington State Patrol, the state Traffic Safety Commission and other agencies, Oke discovered that all law-enforcement agencies, taken together across the state, can get confused about how to police speeds in school zones, for whatever reason.Oke found there are four different ways, in terms of signs, to indicate a particular stretch of road is inside a school zone. The most confusing of those four signs is the aforementioned when children are present sign. When are children actually considered present? When Cole, a retired federal employee who currently drives a school bus for the South Kitsap School District, learned the answer from Oke, he wanted to share it. He says few drivers realize special conditions must exist before they are required to travel 20 miles per hour.According to the state Department of Transportation, if a school zone is marked with a sign that reads: 20 miles per hour when children are present, kids are actually considered present when:* school children are occupying or walking within a marked crosswalk;* students are occupying or waiting at a curb or on the shoulder of the road and are about to cross the roadway by way of the marked crosswalk; or,* school children are present or walking along the road, either on the adjacent sidewalk or, in the absence of sidewalks, on the shoulder wit the posted school speed limit zone, which extends to 300 feet in either direction from the marked crosswalk.Cole knows there are more pressing social issues weighing residents down, but as a school-bus driver and father, Cole is all for safety and fairness, too.When you're talking about a ticket, you're also talking about a ticket going on your driver's record, and your insurance potentially going up, he said. I just don't want to see anyone ticketed unfairly.So Cole is glad to know the state wants to prevent unwarranted ticketing.A level of confusion has existed among law enforcement agencies regarding the conditions that must be present to issue infraction notices under the school-zone enforcement law, wrote Les Pope, a senior program manager for the traffic safety commission. Pope helped Oke study different enforcement policies statewide regarding school-zone speeds, and then issued a memo to the Washington Sheriffs and Police Chiefs' Association (WSPA),the Washington State Patrol and local police departments that described extensively when a traffic ticket is justified. The letter serves as an educational tool for school-zone enforcement.Though confusion has reigned, the senator and his staff believe education, rather than modified legislation, is the answer to the problem.Through our research here, we discovered that the level of confusion could be remedied by educating law-enforcement agencies, rather than fixing the matter through legislation, said Michelle Lewis, Oke's legislative aide in Olympia. Pope also noted in his memo that because of the efforts of law enforcement agencies to patrol school zones, children haven't been seriously injured in school zones in the state.Based on the safety issues, we believe the program has been eminently successful, Pope wrote.Cole doesn't disagree. "

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