What's up with that? School zone placement focuses driver attention

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



In Hockinson, the middle school sits at the intersection of Northeast 159th Street and Northeast 182nd Avenue. As you drive west past the school on 159th, toward the fire station, there is an “End School Zone” sign and the speed increases to 35 mph. This “End School Zone” sign is while you are still in the middle of school property. What is the county’s definition of a school zone if it doesn’t mean on or near a school? It is not safe to have drivers increasing speed where children are walking to school and being dropped off/picked up from school. Can anything be done about this?— Dawn, Hockinson

It’s an odd situation you describe, Dawn a school speed zone that ends within the school property frontage, rather than ending many yards farther down the road and creating a great big slow-down buffer. Isn’t that the whole idea?

Not really, according to Clark County’s transportation manager, Steve Schulte. Schulte clarified that the main functions of school speed zones are to grab drivers’ attention and to “reduce speeds at those locations where school children are most vulnerable. These highest-risk locations are at crosswalks, when children are crossing in front of traffic. The focus is to protect the crosswalk.”

State law prescribes the size of any protected buffer surrounding a school crosswalk: 300 feet. And that’s exactly how things are demarcated on 159th, in front of Hockinson Middle because the crosswalk in question, the one designated as a school crosswalk, is the north-south one at that central, three-legged intersection of 159th Street and 182nd Avenue. That’s where the vast majority of schoolchildren cross, Schulte said. The “End School Zone” sign is 300 feet to the west.

Farther west there is another north-south crosswalk, Schulte agreed, but it is not much used by school children. The county could conceivably expand the speed zone to protect that crosswalk too, Schulte said but it’s not a wise idea.

Why not? Because sprawling speed zones tend to put briefly attentive drivers back to sleep. Witness the mammoth North Salmon Creek speed zone that runs the entire length of the triple-wide campus shared by Skyview, Alki and Chinook schools. It’s become nothing but a scofflaw zone.

“Absent daily enforcement, a lot of motorists lose attention in a zone that’s so big,” Schulte said. If the county expanded the speed zone around Hockinson Middle, eastbound drivers might well start speeding up again after passing that first, western crossing. And that would endanger the kids crossing at the eastern intersection.

The same section of state law also says that a school or playground speed zone “may extend three hundred feet from the border of the school or playground property; however, the speed zone may only include area consistent with active school or playground use.” (Our italics.)

The county’s analysis is that the western crosswalk is not “active school or playground use” and not at risk from roadway traffic. The county wants to keep motorists focused on the eastern crosswalk, so the zone extends 300 feet from that crosswalk and ends there, as required by law.

Just by way of comparison, Schulte said, the county decided “an extended school zone” fits Walnut Grove Elementary School on Northeast 72nd Avenue. School buses load children along the school frontage; the main crosswalk is well beyond 300 feet away; so zone covers both spots, the frontage and the crosswalk plus the required 300-foot buffer.

“Different situations lead to different assessments and placement of school speed zone signs,” Schulte said. “If we start protecting everything everywhere, motorists will stop paying attention.