Explaining variety of school warning signs

The in basket:  David Dahlke asks, “What is with those who design road signs in the county? Do they think that changing the designs on signs shows their ingenuity or is there some other rhyme to their reasoning?

“I refer to a new school bus stop sign on Garfield Avenue in Port Orchard. It has no words on it but is designed to point out a bus stop ahead. Is this due to the inability of some to read English that the common “School Bus Stop Ahead” is now obsolete?

“I mention this because I have an issue with the different school zone signs,” David said. “Why can’t they all be the same instead of ‘When children are present,’ having a time frame on them or when light flashing?”

The out basket: Jeff Shea, traffic engineer for Kitsap County, replies to say, “Signs on county-maintained roads comply with the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).  Washington state adopted the manual and mandated us to follow its guidance and requirements.

“The ‘School Bus Stop Ahead’ sign changed to a symbol recently, much like other signs have through the years. Signs with symbols are more quickly understood and easier to recognize at greater distances.than word messages.

“The less time motorists spend reading a sign, the more focused they can be on the road and driving. The Manual allows a period of several years to replace old signs with new, and we normally wait until the old sign wears out before replacing it with the new sign.

“The MUTCD provides three options for school speed limit zones—specific times, when lights are flashing, and when children are present,” Jeff said. “Managing the time of day restrictions is difficult.  When school schedules vary, which they do a lot, it is nearly impossible to adjust the times (on the signs). Also, the times indicated are often in a small font and can be difficult to read.

“The ‘When Children are Present’ option is probably the best, in theory. Motorists don’t have to slow down unless children are visible in the area.  The law is very specific about where this option applies— 300 feet from an active school property or a school crosswalk. (But) enforcing the restrictions is challenging. Many tickets are thrown out in court because motorists complained that they didn’t see children obscured by cars, vegetation or other obstacles.

“That said, this is what we use for remote school crosswalks.  It is difficult to put times on these because of the varying times it takes school children to get to these crossings.

“The flashing lights are the current sign of choice for school zones. Studies show that motorists understand these signs best, and are more likely to comply. Flashing signals are easier to program with changing times, and remove any ambiguity about if the law applies at that particular time and place.”

Jeff didn’t mention iot, but the flashing signs also are more expensive to install and have ongoing operating expense.

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