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Law Lets Towns Post ‘Children at Play’ Signs

March 13, 2012

By Pia Talwar
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It seemed like a simple task: posting “Children at Play” signs near Middleburg Elementary School in Loudoun County so drivers would be especially alert for youngsters crossing the street or retrieving stray balls.

But the Middleburg Town Council found it wasn’t so easy: State law doesn’t allow town and county governments to erect such signs. All they can do is ask the Virginia Department of Transportation to put up the warnings. And such requests can take longer to process than local officials would like.

Last fall, the Middleburg Town Council told Randy Minchew, who was running for the House of Delegates, about the problem. The result: Two months after Minchew took office, Virginia has a new law authorizing towns and counties to install “Children at Play” signs as long as VDOT agrees and local governments pay for them.

“This bill is not a panacea, and the use of these signs should be done sparingly,” said Minchew, a Republican from Leesburg. “But this grant of enabling authority to localities and VDOT will facilitate the process for erecting helpful and appropriate ‘Children at Play’ signage.”

Minchew’s legislation, House Bill 914, glided through the General Assembly, winning unanimous approval from both the House and Senate. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the bill into law last week. It will take effect July 1.

The existing state law, enacted in 1997, says town and county governments may ask VDOT to install and maintain “Children at Play” caution signs. The department must respond within 30 days. If the request is granted, VDOT works with its resident engineer and local officials to put up the signs.

Minchew heard about problems with the process while campaigning in the 10th House District, which includes parts of Loudoun, Clark and Frederick counties. His future constituents would include the 1,000 residents of Middleburg, a community steeped in colonial history and known as “the nation’s horse and hunt capital.”

He talked not only with the Middleburg Town Council but also with voters he met while going door to door during the summer.

“I also conferred with parents active in [homeowners’] associations, who offered some helpful thoughts,” Minchew said.

He concluded that the state could improve the process by granting towns and counties the right to enter into agreements with VDOT on the placement, number, size and location of “Children at Play” signage.

The new law says that once local officials get the green light from VDOT, they can go ahead and install “signs alerting motorists that children may be at play nearby.” Local governments must bear the cost of erecting and maintaining the signs.

Such signs are somewhat controversial. They do not give children permission to play in public rights of way. Some parents believe the signs may help reduce the speed of vehicles in residential neighborhoods. But traffic engineers have questioned the effectiveness of the signs. Researchers fear that the signs may give children a false sense of security.

Minchew said the signs should be used selectively.

“In my opinion, these ‘Children at Play’ signs should only be placed on local secondary streets and collector roads and never in arterial streets,” he said. “I think these signs can help but are not a solution and cannot serve as a substitute for adult supervision, proper fencing and community policing.”

On the Web

The Virginia Department of Transportation has posted on its website information about “Watch for Children” signs and other programs to promote traffic safety in residential areas. Go to www.virginiadot.org; click on “Programs” and then “Neighborhood Traffic Programs.”

This article was published by such CNS subscribers as The Southwest Times and PotomacLocal.com.