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How to safely and legally navigate through school zones

Traffic signs can be confusing, to say the least. At some point behind the wheel, you’ve probably asked (possibly out loud), “Am I allowed to turn here?” or “What does that mean?”


School Zone sign

Photo by Kt Ann (via Flickr)

We’ve all taken a wrong turn at some point, but generally speaking, the impact was limited to a little bit of frustration or a delay.

But what about the meaning of “when children are present” on a school-zone speed limit sign? It’s a message that can slip right by us, but the importance of understanding our responsibilities as drivers in school zones cannot be overstated.

The Seattle Department of Transportation provides us with the legal definition of “when children are present” on their website. The term applies during any of the following conditions:

  • School children are walking within the marked crosswalk.
  • School children are waiting at the curb or on the shoulder of the roadway to cross at the marked crosswalk.
  • School children are present or walking along the roadway, either on the adjacent sidewalk or on the shoulder.

Many school zone signs also include “or when flashing” and alternating traffic lights (usually orange) to indicate times when school-related traffic volumes and other conditions require drivers to obey the lower speed limits. Remember that when these lights flash, you are required by law to obey the lower speed limit posted, regardless of whether school children are visibly present or not. In fact, many school zones in Seattle now have traffic cameras installed to enforce this law.

Why is this important to UW drivers?

Many of our University vehicle drivers often travel outside of campus for official business. And whether that’s a delivery of medical supplies between the UW Medical Center and Harborview, a group of student mentors visiting a local high school, or a course field trip to another state, we encourage anyone driving a University vehicle to think of themselves as an ambassador for the UW. What does that mean? Well, when someone sees a vehicle with one of our purple W’s on the side, we want them to know that a safe, responsible driver is behind the wheel.

We also want to remind drivers of UW vehicles that they are responsible for any traffic or parking violations incurred. If you are a Fleet Services customer, please take a moment to review our policies.

Finally, while the University of Washington campus doesn’t fall under the term “school zone,” there is a 20 mph speed limit on most on-campus roads. We always encourage drivers to take it slow on campus, at all times, regardless of visible pedestrian or vehicle traffic. It’s a beautiful campus - why not slow down and enjoy it?

More information and resources

SDOT’s webpage on traffic enforcement in school zones outlines your responsibility as a driver in these areas and includes maps of where school zones and school zone enforcement cameras are placed within the city of Seattle.

Our Fleet Services team is available to answer your questions regarding safe driving practices and Fleet policies. If you haven’t yet taken our online Driver Safety & Awareness course, please do so today. We also offer in-person safety courses as needed. Please contact us at or 206-221-6838 with any questions or to inquire about an in-person safety course for your team today.

Thank you for your partnership as we work toward a safer UW, both inside and outside of campus.


This post was originally published June 16, 2016. Updated September 6, 2017.