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Mixed signals over school zone speed cause headaches for motorists, police
by: photo by Chase Allgood,

Oregon is doing away with 24-hour school speed zones on its roadways this week, but motorists will still have to hit the brakes in front of a few schools, including Cornelius Elementary, for a while longer.

State lawmakers approved the 24-hour school speed zones in 2003 in response to the fact that children use school playgrounds and other school areas even when school is not in session. Lawmakers, led by state Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), argued that children were at risk of being struck by vehicles when motorists drove through the zones at higher speeds.

Many motorists, however, found the signs requiring them to slow down to 20 mph, even in the middle of the night, to be a nuisance. Police departments found the law - which imposed doubled speeding fines in school zones - difficult to administer.

Cornelius Chief of Police Paul Rubenstein called the 2003 law an 'enforcement nightmare' that was 'not appropriate' for certain stretches of roadway, including the section of state Highway 8 that passes Cornelius Elementary School.

'We could've written tickets at 2 a.m.,' he said, 'but that's not what the intent of school zones is.'

The 2005 state legislature passed a bill simplifying the state's school speed zone policy.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, limits traffic regulations on roadways adjacent to schools to two basic options.

In most locations, the 20 mph speed limit will be enforced only between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on school days.

But at 43 spots, including Highway 8 in Cornelius, drivers will be required to slow down only when yellow lights near the school zone signs are flashing.

Fines for speeding violations will remain doubled in zones where the yellow lights are flashing, but not in zones that are posted as between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials estimate it will cost $600,000 to change all the signs and add the flashing lights.

Rubenstein applauds the change, which he said fits better with the intent of protecting school children than did the previous law.

But he'll have to put up with a bit of confusion for a at least a few more weeks - and so will local motorists.

ODOT spokesman David House said some of the new signs may not be put up until fall, just before school starts. Until then, motorists should continue to obey the old rules, even if they are confusing.

'Just follow the signs and you'll be okay,' House said. 'When in doubt, slow down.'