school zone busy street

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You want your students to be safe, and you also want motorists in the area to understand where that safety is a concern. After recently being accused of speeding in a school zone in Shawnee, KS, on a non-school day (based on city code, this is not speeding), I have decided to write a common sense article about school zones. I have read a lot of city code about school zones since the ticket, and I come from a city planning background, so I like to see code that makes sense to citizens.


Many communities in our area post certain times for school zones, as in 7:30 to 9:00 and 2:30 to 5:00. Or just 7:00 until 5:00. Times can be confusing. If it's a city code, then it must take each and every school's start and end times, which means the times listed start early and end late. If a break is added in the middle of the day, then school zones suddenly do not apply on a half-day? For that, you'd have to use something in addition, as in, "And when children are present." Some motorists might get confused on a Saturday when there's a soccer game at a park adjacent to the school, since there are children present.

When Children Are Present

This was a favorite in my home state of Wisconsin. It probably made a lot of sense when most schools had K4 and K5 as half-days. Also, since there was mass busing in Milwaukee, start times were staggered quite a bit. My high school day started at 7:15, middle school at 8:00, and elementary school at 9:00. Many of the private schools in Milwaukee proper were vaguely neighborhood schools, too, so they really did need school zones just as much as the public schools.

This way of determining a school zone is more complicated in a suburban area like Johnson County, Kansas. The private school I happened to drive past to get a speeding ticket, as well as the school which my children attend, have pretty much zero students who walk and loading zones in a parking lot. Motorists never see kids at private schools like this in an area so spread out, so if a school zone is requested, it's really to protect parents driving to and from the schools. If children presence was required for the speed zones near these private schools, then no one would ever slow down. 

Flashing Lights

A method used for some schools in the area is to have flashing lights. This qualifier means that it's normal speed unless the lights are flashing. As was evidenced in my speeding ticket, these lights apparently flash on a schedule independent of the school calendar, which means that short days or days off make the lights liars. Of course, flashing lights do generate the most attention to the school zone, but if there are 20 days out of 190 that the lights are either flashing when school is not in session or not flashing when school is leaving in the middle of the day, then it's really a problem to use this system. At the school I went past, I counted 14 days that meet this criteria, not including larger breaks, like holiday weeks. If those lights keep flashing for two weeks at Christmas and a week at spring break, we're talking about closer to 30 days a school year of misrepresentation.

The particular school zone I drove past also did not have a warning sign signifying I was approaching a school zone. As far as I can tell, this is certainly suggested, if not the law.

When School is in Session

This is the letter of the law in the city in which I was ticketed, which means I was ticketed wrongly. However, it's difficult for police officers to always know the schedules for all schools, so I think we can all accept an honest mistake every once in a while. Motorists also do not know when any random school is in session, so it's impossible to put the onus on them, which is why you don't see school zone signs with this description. The traffic cops are really responsible for knowing this one more than individual citizens.

The Answer

The best solution would be flashing lights, only active when school is in session. Pair this with police officers who pay attention to the school calendar. Another suggestion that might work in the case of some suburban private schools would be to divert traffic from major streets to arterials. While this might cost some money in initial infrastructure, it will also result in smoother traffic flow throughout the day. We could also use new technology in order to identify tiny pedestrians at appropriate times, like radar or lidar used in self-driving cars mounted on school zone signs. The goal is safety, not extra income for local government or harassment of citizens.