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Drunken pedestrians faulted in Santa Rosa crashes


A Santa Rosa man hit by a car as he walked in traffic is the latest example of a disturbing trend in the city: drunken pedestrians entering roadways, leading to fatal or near-fatal collisions with vehicles.

"We have now had seven fatal or near-fatal collisions involving pedestrians in the last year," said Police Sgt. Rich Celli.

In five of the incidents, the pedestrians were intoxicated. Each was found at fault for coming into the path of vehicles.

The five, two of whom were critically injured and three who died, had high blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.229 percent to 0.4 percent, Celli said. Three of the men were homeless.

The number of crashes is prompting police to begin targeting alcohol sales to habitual drinkers, focusing on adults buying alcohol for habitual drinkers and doing outreach at homeless shelters, Celli said.

"A lot of our focus needs to be ... on who is serving the alcohol and the enforcement against those who sell to habitual drunkards," he said.

Santa Rosa officers said they are working with Petaluma police and the CHP to organize joint enforcement projects that will include targeting pedestrian violations.

"We're all aware of the challenges. The problems they're experiencing we've experienced," said Petaluma Sgt. Ken Savano. "We'll combine resources to address that."

The CHP said it also is dealing with the problem, noting a recent near-miss collision involved an intoxicated pedestrian walking in traffic.

"We probably just prevented one this weekend," CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.

The call came in late Sunday night:

"A woman on heroin was walking on Skillman Lane, walking in front of traffic, causing vehicles to swerve around her," Sloat said. As she was being arrested she told officers in addition to the heroin she had been drinking.

There's nothing new about pedestrians being hit by cars. In Santa Rosa, such collisions have occurred in the past two years at a rate of about five a month. The vast majority involved no injuries or minor injuries, according to police reports.

Most assume the driver of a vehicle is at fault, Celli said. But of the 67 vehicle-pedestrian collisions in the city since October 2010, 43 percent were caused by the pedestrian.

"Everyone has to be aware. It's not just solely dependent on the driver. It's on the pedestrian as well," Celli said.

In contrast, there have been no fatal drunken-driving crashes within Santa Rosa in the past year, as well as no drunken drivers hitting pedestrians causing serious or fatal injuries.

Santa Rosa police have completed a two-year enforcement and education program on street safety between pedestrians and vehicles and cyclists, funded by a state grant. While improvements occurred in some areas, the collisions continued, Celli said.

"We know we're impacting the community but with the alcohol part, we're missing part of the problem," Celli said.

The most recent collision occurred Oct. 15 when Oscar Cordova, 55, was walking in traffic on Stony Point Road and was struck by a vehicle that then fled. Police still were looking for the hit-and-run driver Wednesday.

Cordova, who is homeless, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.4 percent at the time and is presumed at fault. On Wednesday, he remained at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto in critical condition.

In Petaluma, there are about 25 pedestrian-vehicle crashes a year. About 60 percent have been the fault of pedestrians, Savano said.

Petaluma has had five pedestrian fatalities from vehicle collisions since 2000, four in the past five years. Three of those were caused by intoxicated pedestrians. Two of the pedestrians were homeless, Savano said.

More recently in Petaluma, an intoxicated man walking on a street Oct. 4 was hit and suffered moderate injuries, said Petaluma Lt. Tim Lyons. The man was found to be at fault.

Petaluma officers investigated three other similar non-fatal collisions in 2010, finding fault with the three intoxicated pedestrians who were hit by cars, Lyons said.

The two fatal pedestrian collisions in Santa Rosa this year that did not involve alcohol were the January death of an 85-year-old woman pinned by her car and the August death of a 4-year-old boy in a crosswalk who was struck by a hit-and-run driver. A suspect later was arrested.

In addition to targeting businesses selling alcohol to intoxicated patrons, Santa Rosa police will use an undercover operation to go after people who buy alcohol for a drunken adult.

"We normally do this for teens. We'll take it a step further," Celli said. "We know some of these habitual (drinkers) are seeking out patrons of liquor stores to buy them alcohol since they're not getting served."

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.