I drive past two schools, once a week at about 8.30am. Both schools have lots of people and cars around them; both have 40km/h flashing electronic signs operating; both have dedicated crossing places, one is a kea crossing, the other has a zebra crossing; and both have trained children and adults monitoring and operating these crossing places. They are well managed school speed zones.
These are busy and congested roading environments with significant numbers of boisterous, but potentially distracted, vulnerable young people on their way to school. You become naturally cautious as a driver, but it can be quite challenging to reduce speed to 40km/h unless the reason is patently obvious.
There's a lot going on around schools these days which is not limited to the classroom. In a traffic sense, schools are concerned about congestion around their entrances and their drop-off zones. Many would prefer their students walked or biked to school but don't know how to effect this. They worry about the speed of vehicles around the school and how children can safely cross the road. These issues are all part of the school staff responsibility before the real work of education can begin.
When I was a kid we walked, cycled or bussed to school. Parents rarely dropped their children off on the way to work. But as urban schools increase their roll numbers with little increase in physical area, the challenge of traffic around the school increases and each school has its unique set of issues.
Road controlling authorities (aka councils) are asked to assist with pedestrian crossings, improved school drop-off zones, road markings, school signs, reduced speed limits and help with the enforcement of these. But, many councils have no particular policy or toolkit to be able to effectively assist the school that is requesting help.
The central consideration in all of this is the recognition that children are particularly vulnerable road users. A 2011 study by the University of London revealed that school-aged children do not have the "perceptual acuity" to properly distinguish vehicle distances when vehicles are travelling at more than 20mph (32km/h).
Professor John Wann, who led the research commented, "This is not a matter of children not paying attention, but a problem related to low level visual detection mechanisms, so, that they fail to detect a fast approaching vehicle."
It has been well signalled politically that we can look forward to lower speed limits around schools. Green Party policy supports a 30km/h default speed limit around urban schools and 80km/h around rural schools with variable 30km/h when children are present. The main implementation questions will be: Will these limits only be around the most vulnerable times and, how well will they be supported by flashing electronic signs and enforcement on all roads surrounding the school?
Establishing a new 30km/h speed limit is not just a matter of putting up a sign. The flashing electronic 40km/h variable speed limit has been available to qualifying schools for over a decade now. It has been well proven that their successful operation depends on four factors which need to come together. The times of operation need to coincide with the on-road school related activity. The active signs need to be sufficiently visible, approved displays such that motorists are alerted when travelling through the school zone. The variable speed limits need to be appropriately enforced by the police and finally, there is a long-term commitment by the principal and Board of Trustees for the correct operation of the variable speed limit at their school.
So, 30 could become the new 40, but it won't just happen. Funding must follow the legislation and we all need to buy into making our school roading environment as safe as we can make it.