February 12, 2009

School Zone Quandary

What are the laws regarding school zone speed limits? It seems to me that people will generally drive faster than the speed limit on a normal road... unless it is a school zone. School zones seem to be the one traffic rule to which everyone will adhere. When we see those flashing lights that caution us to drive no more than 20 miles per hour because children and a school are nearby, we all basically abide by the law. Twenty miles per hour is so painfully slow that it’s obvious when someone is going too fast, so everyone really has to stick to it. But it’s for a good reason because no one wants to accidentally kill a kid who runs out in the middle of the street. However, sometimes these school zone lights are incorrect – on holidays and weekends, as an example. So my question to you is, do we have to obey the 20 mph speed limit if you know that the school zone sign is wrong?

There is a school zone near my house, and I was driving through it on Christmas Day. Of course, everything was closed on Christmas, and school was not in session. The school zone speed limit lights were on an automatic timer, so at 3 pm on Christmas, they were blinking to enforce a 20 mph speed limit. Now, I knew that school was not in session, and therefore (technically) the school zone speed limit should not have been enforced (there were no kids, no crossing guard and no cars in the parking lot). But I didn't know what to do. Should I drive 20 mph?... or is it OK to drive faster than that? The few other drivers around me seemed equally confused, as some were driving normal, and others had slowed down dramatically. So what is the real legal rule in that situation? Could a cop have given me a speeding ticket for driving faster than 20 mph, even if I could have proved that school was not in session? I imagine that he COULD have given me a ticket, but would my defense be adequate to have it dismissed in traffic court?

In another example, what if a school speed limit sign was stuck in the “on” position forever... all day, all night, all through the summer, when clearly there are no kids going to school? Could you fight your way out of that speeding ticket? What if one school speed limit light was on, but the others were off? I saw this just the other day - it was on Sunday (obviously, no school) and one sign was blinking and the others were off. What’s the rule under that situation? Would it be "speeding" to drive through this area at 30 mph? Would it be a ticketable offense?

The hazy rules can get even more nuanced. Last year I noticed that one of the school zone speed limit signs near me had not automatically adjusted itself for daylight savings time - the others had, but not this particular one. The light would continue to blink for an hour after all the other school zone signs had turned themselves off. Is it wrong to disobey it? It was freaking me out because I knew that the sign was wrong, but it was also "wrong" during a time that was very close to the real school time. I probably looked like a reckless asshole for “speeding” through the area when other drivers were not aware that the light was operating on the wrong time zone. Should a cop have given me a ticket for this? (CAN a cop give me a ticket for this??) After all, the reason why we have signs and traffic lights in the first place is so that we don’t have to rely on people to make personal decisions and judgements about how and when to follow the rules. But does it matter if the rule/sign/light is incorrectly posted?

Think about the moments when you come to a broken stoplight - a traffic light that is stuck on red. After sitting there for minutes and minutes, ultimately you realize that it is not going to change to green (or maybe you came to the intersection and drivers had already figured out that it was broken, so they were driving through it when they could). What are you to do? You have to eventually drive through it and disobey the "traffic law", right? So, therefore, wouldn't driving faster than the school zone speed limit be OK when you KNOW that the sign is wrong (which can probably be most clearly determined when there is only one sign blinking and all the rest are off). But what if the OTHER sign (the one that is not blinking) is the broken one, and it really IS a school zone time? Or what if you think the blinking signs are wrong because they are on during the summer, but they are actually CORRECT because there is summer school? Or what if they are on at night because there was a school play that evening? I guess you can never really know for sure.

When I see a school zone sign that is clearly malfunctioning (i.e. it is the only one out of the four signs that is flashing, or they are flashing on Christmas Day...) then I opt to straddle the different speed limits. I won’t drive as fast as I normally would (which would actually exceed the normal speed limit), but I won’t go as slow as 20 mph, either. I don’t openly dismiss the flashing lights by driving arrogantly at 40 mph, but I don’t strictly adhere to the school zone. However, I’m still waiting for the day when I get pulled over by the police and have this discussion with them.


  1. I often wonder the same thing! I will usually drive slow. I imagine the police could technically and legally give you a ticket, if they wanted to.

  2. i think the common sense rule needs to apply here. if there is no school then the regular speed limit should apply. but if you were given a ticket, i don't know how you would get out of it!