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School zones can have lower speed limits during certain hours

What does the “when children are present” road sign mean exactly?

Have you ever driven by a sign like this one and wondered what it actually means?

These speed limit signs sometimes appear near schools in Canada. The sign indicates that the normal speed limit on that route is lowered “when children are present”.

But this can be confusing. Are you only supposed to slow down when you can see children somewhere near the road? Or are you meant to slow down whenever you have a reasonable expectation there might be children in the vicinity, say during school hours? That raises more questions than it answers. If schools are open Monday to Friday, 8 am to 3 pm, does the normal speed limit apply outside of those hours? What about after-school activities and weekend clubs? Or what about if the kids are all inside the building but on a school day, does that count? If the purpose of a sign is to convey information efficiently, this one fails miserably.

To try to understand what this sign means for drivers, let’s see what the law says.

The law in BC

The Motor Vehicle Act (MVA) sets out the meaning of traffic signs in BC. In BC you might see a “tab” below a warning sign near a school or playground that says a speed limit followed by “when children on highway”.

According to the MVA:

“When used below the “School Area (Warning)” sign this tab establishes a maximum speed zone which must be observed whenever a child or children are on the travelled roadway or the shoulders, between 8 am and 5 pm on school days, or other times as specified by additional tab.”

So if the tab is below one of these signs:

It means the lower speed limit applies when there are children are present on or by the side of the road and it’s between the hours of 8am and 5 pm on a school day. It’s not clear here whether school days means Monday to Friday or any day when children are attending school.

Other tabs might make this clearer by displaying a speed limit followed by “8am-5pm School Days”. The hours during which the speed limit is in effect can begin earlier than 8am and later than 5pm if warranted, however, 8am to 5pm is the minimum.

The MVA goes on to state:

“When used below the “Playground Area (Warning)” sign this tab establishes a maximum speed zone which must be observed whenever a child or children are on the travelled roadway or the shoulders, from dawn to dusk.”

So if the tab is appearing below one of these signs:

It means the speed limit applies when there are children are present on or by the side of the road and it’s daylight hours. Why are playground area speed limits in effect from “dawn to dusk” and school zones are 8 am to 5pm? According to the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure website, during winter, dawn may not occur dawn may not occur until 8 am and dusk may occur as early at 4 pm.

“It is reasonable to presume that students could be on school grounds prior to dawn and after dusk during the winter season,” the Ministry stated. “The school speed zone would not be in operation at these times and children would not be afforded the same level of safety as when speed zones were in operation.”

Penalties for speeding in a school zone

If you are caught speeding above the posted speed limit in a school or playground zone, it can cost you more than a run-of-the-mill speeding ticket. According to ICBC, the fine for speeding in a playground or school zone ranges from $196 to $253 compared to $138 to $196 for a speeding in a municipality or speeding against a highway sign offence. For any of these offences, you can also expect three penalty points.

How “when children are present” has been interpreted

Finding examples of how this law has been enforced in BC is tricky. There appears to be little case law to do with “when children are present” or “when children on highway” road signs in BC. Perhaps this is unsurprising given its ambiguity. Maybe this offence is rare because it’s too difficult to prove when the sign can be said to apply to a specific situation, who knows?

For an indication of how it might be interpreted, we must look to Nova Scotia. The laws differ there of course but one case might offer some answers. A defendant was charged with speeding in a school zone. He was driving along a portion of an 80 km/h highway bordering a school. A sign was erected that stated the speed limit was 50 km/h “when children are present”. There were no children present on the highway or outside the school at the time although school was in session.

The law in Nova Scotia states that the sign was in effect when children are present on the highway or on land adjacent to the highway, which it defines as within 30 m of the centre of the highway. The nearest part of the school was 19.8 m from the centre of the highway and the Crown argued that because there were children inside the school, the sign was in effect.

The judge disagreed, finding that the legislation “did not envision a situation” where children were inside a school where their safety was not at risk. “If the legislature wanted to require motorists to slow to 50 kph when school was in session,” the judge said. “It could have easily and more clearly required that in the statute – it did not.” The defendant was found not guilty.

We can help

The rules of traffic signs can get very technical. Your best bet is to err on the side of caution when driving in a school or playground zone. If there are children present near the road and it is between 8 am and 5pm in a school zone, slow down and drive with caution.

If you would like to speak to us about tickets in school zones you can call us at (604) 608-1200 or email us at to set up a meeting with one of our lawyers. You can also use our text-a-ticket service to easily dispute a ticket.