Sonoma County law enforcement agencies will have nearly $2 million to spend on traffic enforcement, anti-DUI campaigns and educating motorists about the dangers of distracted driving next year, thanks to federal grant disbursements.
Petaluma police received the most funds, in the form of three grants totaling $650,000. Petaluma police manage the countywide Avoid the 13 anti-drunken driving campaign in which all agencies participate. A grant to pay for that effort accounts for $350,000 of Petaluma's total.
The funds come from the federal gas tax and are divvied up by the state Office of Traffic Safety to agencies seeking funding for specific areas in need of attention.
Petaluma Sgt. Ken Savano, who heads the department's traffic division, said the grant money has funded one full-time officer for three years running and provides pay for officers to work overtime for special operations like DUI checkpoints and pedestrian-crosswalk stings.
Though some motorists feel inconvenienced about the stops — or that police should instead focus on violent crime – drivers forget that their inattention can turn deadly in seconds, Savano said.
"We get complacent. We drive so much," he said. "It's one of the most dangerous things you do on daily basis, but most people don't give it the adequate amount of attention.
"Until the lights come on or the crash happens, they're not thinking about their driving."
Five agencies — Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma — will split a little more than $910,000 to conduct "selective traffic enforcement programs" that each city has identified as a problem.
In Santa Rosa, that includes specialized impaired driving training for officers, DUI "saturation patrols," motorcycle and distracted driving enforcement and seat belt and child-safety seat enforcement, Conners said.
Funding will also go toward court stings that catch motorists who drive away from court after having their driver's license suspended or revoked, the compilation of DUI "hot sheets" that identify repeat DUI offenders, and stakeouts to arrest the "worst of the worst" repeat offenders.
Another $406,000 was awarded to Sonoma County prosecutors for an alcohol- and drug-impaired "vertical prosecution program," which provides a streamlined approach to shepherd such cases through the courts.
It's the second year District Attorney Jill Ravitch's office has received the grant. This year's was $100,000 more than last year.
It funds two prosecutors and part of a legal processor's position. They work directly with law enforcement, review DUI cases and follow them all the way through the system.
"Once it comes in the door, it stays with them until it is finished," Ravitch said. "That leads to better outcomes and better accountability."
She said the vertical prosecution team recently won a 9-year-prison sentence for a repeat drunken driver.
State data show that while traffic deaths declined by nearly 39 percent between 2006 and 2010, they rose by 2.6 percent in 2011. State and federal officials anticipate that figures will show another rise in 2012, Santa Rosa traffic Sgt. Brad Conners said.
Drunken driving fatalities remain the largest sector of traffic deaths, at nearly 30 percent, the state figures show.
About $170,000 in grants is divided among Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol to pay for drunken driving checkpoints.
The regional CHP also received grant funding, although local figures weren't available Tuesday.