It’s 20 mph even if school forgot to turn off sign

Q: In a school zone, if the lights are flashing but school is out (like for spring break), does the 20-mph speed limit still apply?

A: Sounds like someone forgot to turn out the lights before they went on vacation. Dad’s going to be pretty upset when you all get home. I hope you’re ready for the lecture on responsibility, how money doesn’t grow on trees, and that if this is how you’re going to waste his resources maybe now is a good time to start paying rent.

Oh, wait, wrong scenario. Let’s talk about school zones. The easy answer is, yes, if the beacons are flashing the speed limit is 20 mph. Now, when someone says an answer is easy and responds with such confidence, you should ask for sources. And since you’re asking, I’ll admit this is a bit of an argument from silence.

Let’s first make sure we agree on what a school zone is. The Revised Code of Washington gives cities and counties the ability to create school zones, “in which zone it is unlawful for a person to operate a vehicle at a speed in excess of 20 miles per hour.” The zone extends up to 300 feet from the edge of the school property. That’s it from the RCW. Nothing about additional plaques with the hours the zone is in effect, or that read “when children are present” or “when flashing.” Without any additional plaques the school zone speed limit is in effect every day, all day, all year long.

The Washington Administrative Code adds some context to the “when children are present” plaque, explaining that it is in effect when schoolchildren are in a crosswalk, waiting to cross the street, or walking on the sidewalk or shoulder of the roadway.

I couldn’t find anything in the law, the Washington Driver Guide, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or even a traffic lawyer’s website, that gave any clarification or exceptions to the 20-mph-when-flashing speed limit. That’s probably because it’s obvious to the point of not needing an explanation, at least until a school goes on spring break without turning off the lights and leaves drivers wondering.

Given that there’s nothing in the law that says you can ignore the 20-mph speed limit, the plainest understanding of the law is there are no exceptions.

However, even though I can’t speak on behalf of our police officers, I highly doubt that there would be any effort to enforce a school zone speed limit when school isn’t in session. And to speculate some more, I expect that if an officer did write a ticket for it, a judge might lean toward mercy for a driver who was traveling at the otherwise posted speed limit.

But here’s the thing; I get a lot more questions from people trying to find ways to go faster than I do from people willing to go slower. 76% of Washington drivers speed, at least a little bit. It’s not much better in school zones, where 71% of drivers speed. Speed is a factor in a third of traffic fatalities in the state.

The person who forgot to turn off the flashing beacons for spring break caused a few seconds of delay for drivers. And working in the other direction, that’s the trade-off of speeding. In exchange for increased risk, your gain is calculated in seconds. I know I’m biased, but I don’t think it’s worth it.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.