News

School zones clarified, drivers now ticketed

Oak Harbor drivers would be advised to pay attention to new signs that have cropped up around the city lately. Ignoring them could cost a bundle.

The city has taken a step meant to resolve a concern that has generated complaints to the police department for years — the unclear and sometimes random nature of school zones.

Police Chief Steve Almon said school zone and associated signs have been changed in order to be uniform and clarified throughout the city. Areas within 150 feet of school property are now posted with signs that limit the speed to 20 miles per hour between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“We don’t want drivers to have to guess what the expectations are at each school zone,” Almon said. “The idea was to make it standardized so that everyone knows what the rules of the road are.”

The speed limits are only in effect when school is in session, which excludes evenings, weekends, holidays and summer break.

Most of the signs, Almon said, were put up during the Christmas holiday season. Because it was a pretty major change, he said he encouraged officers to hand out warnings instead of tickets until people get used to it.

But now the grace period is over. “I’m taking the position now that people should be used to the change,” he said. “That’s a nice way of saying that speed zones are being enforced.”

Remember, Almon warns, traffic fines double in school zones.

But not everyone is happy with the change. Kelly Boyle was driving on Midway Friday morning when she was stopped for traveling 32 mph — the officer claimed — in the 20-mph zone. She got a $177 ticket. Boyle said she hadn’t even noticed the sign change and the cars around her were traveling at the same speed she was.

“Nobody realizes that it’s 20 miles per hour,” she said. “All you see is the little black letters and you don’t realize the words have changed.”

While Almon pointed out that there are bright flags on the signs, Boyle said the city should have put up big signs or something more prominent announcing the change. Also, she said it doesn’t make sense that school zones are so different around Crescent Harbor, which is in the county.

“School zones are school zones,” she said. “They should all be the same.”

Nevertheless, Almon said the new zones are here to stay. The need for the change, Almon said, was partly due to the vague language on the old signs, which reduced the speed limit to 20 “when children are present.” Almon said he got many questions and complaints from people who questioned what that meant. Does it count if children are inside the school or outside during recess? Do drivers actually have to see the children?

Almon said he wasn’t even sure of the answer, so he checked the state law and found a lengthy description. It basically said that school children have to be walking along the road, or in the crosswalk, for the speed limit to be in effect. Yet Almon said he felt the need for a lengthy description meant that the traffic rule was just too complicated. They should be simply and easy to follow, he said.

Another problem, Almon said, was that the school zones were different around each school. There were flashing lights on Whidbey Avenue, for example, and a weird school zone on Regatta. “It was always kind of confusing to me as to where it ended,” Almon said.

A team of city and school officials met to look at the school zones and discuss what to do. As a result, City Traffic Engineer Eric Johnston researched the issue and created a standardized policy on school zones and school crosswalks last February.

The policy calls for school zones to be marked from 7 to 4 p.m. within 150 feet of schools and for “end school zone” signs to be posted where the zones terminate. It states that flashing beacons should only be used “in highly unusually situations.” It calls for “adult guards” or “student patrols” to supervise school zone crosswalks.

Under the policy, signs have been replaced. The flashing lights on Whidbey have been removed and school zones were eliminated in areas on Regatta and on Midway, north of Whidbey Avenue.

“It should make it a lot easier for drivers to follow,” he said.

Almon said he realizes that the most controversial parts of the change for some drivers may be the 20 mph speed limit during such a large chunk of the day. Yet he recently did a test and drove through a school zone on Heller Road at the regular speed limit and then at 20 mph. The difference, he said, was 15 seconds.

“Is 15 seconds a reasonable amount of time for the level of security we want for our kids?” he said. “For me, the answer is easily ‘yes.’”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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