According to an article in The Seattle Times, a Seattle driver/attorney recently contested a camera-generated traffic ticket he’d received for speeding in a school zone. The fine in question amounted to $189, and the attorney wasn’t claiming that he hadn’t been guilty of speeding.  But he still won, and his infraction was dismissed.

How did that happen?  Shouldn’t this guy have just paid the fine?

First, let us be very clear: MBC does not support speeding in school zones, disregarding traffic control devices or otherwise breaking the law. We realize and agree that this man’s actions endangered school children in the area he sped through. The argument centers on more complex issues – public safety and adherence to the law. Courts don’t just get to dismiss things on a whim, and people aren’t allowed to bring arguments on appeal unless they are legitimate.  With that said…

Let’s take a moment to consider a few things

The Seattle lawyer’s argument was actually that his speeding was caused by a wordy sign.  That sign had been posted to notify drivers as to when the 20 mph speed limit is in effect along Greenwood Avenue. It reads: “WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING OR WHEN CHILDREN ARE PRESENT,” in two-inch block letters, according to the article.

To the ordinary observer that warning might seem entirely adequate. Of course, an ordinary observer doesn’t necessarily possess all the background on a topic. So, allow MBC to offer a little background on why such a seemingly petty, and maybe even defiant and miserly effort, is actually important to public safety.

It’s the principle of the thing 

One thing that makes our country work is that the law says it’s reasonable for each of us to expect others to follow the law, just like each of us is required to do.  That means that the government has to follow the law, too.

In this case, the entity who owns the sign at issue is the City of Seattle. There are rules and policies on the books that dictate how the city designs and posts traffic control devices.  As the court found, in this case, Seattle’s sign just didn’t follow the law. And that was the crux of the decision to dismiss the infraction.

It’s the law

Laws exist for reasons.  In this case, rules govern the size, arrangement and number of words on a sign. It’s not just because some decision maker has an eye for design – it has more to do with thorough research, extensive studies and science.  As mentioned earlier, to the average observer, the sign described in this incident may seem completely appropriate. However, as The Seattle Times points out, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices guides how the sign should have been designed – it should have included fewer words. This is because, according to research, people are less likely to slow down when the warning sign is too wordy.

Essentially, the data shows that drivers don’t respond as well when confronted with confusing or too many directions. If a school zone sign has too many words, drivers are statistically less likely to slow down.  Ignoring the research won’t change the facts. That’s why the Manual covers the topic. It’s important to remember that the law applies to all cases, whether they seem silly or not, and decisions reached in one case could affect the course of future cases.  Laws exist to make the public safer, and Seattle’s failure to follow them put school children at risk.

It’s a voice for a bigger issue

Ok, so we agree with what you’re probably thinking – this case is a bit blown out of proportion.  There are probably a variety of ways to get a message about sign safety across to the City of Seattle.  But, as we see in this case, the court offers a very effective avenue for getting change implemented. 

The City of Seattle has been making a concerted effort to increase safety in school zones for several years now.  This lawyer’s contested infraction created real action to correct a potentially dangerous condition within weeks. Both routes lead to better public safety provisions, but one seems to have taken significantly less time to get action.  As the lawyer who brought this case mentions, there are other problems with the signs in Seattle – many are blocked at least partially by trees and power poles, and others are located less than optimally.  If the issue is safety in school zones, then why not fix the problem?

It’s cost savings

Let’s pretend for a second: What if, instead of speeding through the north Seattle school zone without incident, the driver had, God forbid,  struck a child.  That child may have suffered severe injury or perhaps been killed.  As The Seattle Times points out, the odds of fatality in a pedestrian/vehicle crash are significantly higher when the vehicle is travelling at 35 as opposed to 20 mph.

It is feasible and likely that the family of the child in such a case would bring a claim against the City for its failure to properly warn of the school zone speed limit.  In a court of law, the child’s attorney would have to prove that the injuries sustained by the child were made far worse by the City’s improper sign.  They would connect the deviation from the Manual’s guidance to the driver’s failure to slow down.  The driver and the City would then each be responsible for paying whatever sum of monies were awarded to the child’s family, and you can be sure that the driver probably has less funds from which to pay than the City.  The City would end up footing the bill for the majority of the damages when it could have simply spent the time and significantly less money to make sure signs are in compliance with the Manual.  Instead, the problem was solved by a simple contested traffic ticket hearing. No one was hurt. Limited money was spent. Everybody benefits.