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As North Coast residents gear up to celebrate New Year’s Eve and law enforcement officers prepare to hit the streets on patrol for drunken drivers, state records suggest that fewer people are drinking and driving.

The number of drunken drivers arrested in California on the New Year’s Eve holiday has plummeted over the past five years, a trend mirrored in local traffic cases, according to CHP arrest statistics.

As the calendar flipped from Dec. 31, 2010, to Jan. 1, 2011, CHP officers statewide issued 954 DUI citations. The number of DUI arrests was halved during the holiday last year, with just 486 DUI arrests.

In Santa Rosa, DUI arrests peaked during the 2011-12 New Year’s Eve night, when officers issued 16 drunken-driving citations, compared to eight during last year’s holiday.

The drop in such arrests has come as greater numbers of California law enforcement are out looking for drunken drivers, especially during the holidays.

State grants aimed at curbing intoxicated driving help local agencies pay for the extra staffing. State officials say the drop in DUIs is evidence that people are heeding public warnings of the dangers of drinking and driving.

Santa Rosa attorney Jake Schwartz, who specializes in DUI cases, said the downward trend reflects his belief that fewer people get drunk and drive, despite public perceptions.

“There are only some people for whom when they drink, personal and community safety goes out the window,” Schwartz said.

People with drinking problems are the ones who get arrested again and again; for others, one DUI is a life-changing event, he said.

He said the flimsy concept of the designated driver adds to the problem.

The designated driver might be the person who seems least drunk. Or it is the taller friend whose tolerance is perceived to be highest. Or the person who agreed to only have one beer but at some point lost track.

“A lot of my clients were designated drivers, but something went wrong,” Schwartz said. “Someone said they’d take over or they thought they’d just have one or they’re looking at their friends who are completely wasted but they’re relatively sober.”

A devastating crash that occurred five years ago, killing two Cloverdale women, highlights worst-case consequences when a designated driver opts to drink.

A 27-year-old San Francisco woman was the driver in her group for a day of wine tasting in July 2010. The collision occurred after she failed to navigate a sharp turn on a road in Geyserville and collided with another car, killing two passengers, officials said.

Measured at the crash scene, the designated driver’s blood-alcohol level was 0.10 percent, officials said. She received a nearly 4-year prison sentence.

The concept of the designated driver has been promoted in public awareness campaigns urging people to consider the risks of drinking and driving. But state officials said that little research exists about designated drivers.

Chris Cochran, California Office of Traffic Safety spokesman, said that despite the lack of data, he believes that the concept of a designated sober driver is far more socially acceptable to “younger demographics” than it was decades ago.

While “some consider the designated driver as the least drunk,” the designated driver is “no longer the odd man out, the goody-goody square not joining in the fun. They are the good guy this week and someone else is the good guy next week,” Cochran said.

A 2013 University of Florida study found that about 35 percent of people surveyed who identified themselves as designated drivers had consumed alcohol.

For the study, a team of researchers spent three months interviewing and conducting breath tests for blood-alcohol levels on 1,000 people leaving bars in downtown Gainesville after major football games.

Among the self-identified designated drivers who had been drinking, 18 percent had blood-alcohol levels at 0.05 percent or higher. It is illegal to drive in the United States at 0.08 percent, but the researchers said that a person’s abilities are impaired at 0.05 percent.

“Now we tell people to designate a sober driver,” CHP Officer Jon Sloat said. “People used to designate the least drunk driver.”

Last year during the New Year’s holiday, 28 people died in vehicle collisions in California, none on the North Coast. Three people have died in fatal crashes on New Year’s Eve since 2006 in Sonoma County. Information about whether the drivers were drunk was not available.

Most Sonoma County law enforcement agencies are boosting patrols on New Year’s Eve again this year and through the weekend.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is conducting a DUI and driver’s license checkpoint on Saturday at an undisclosed location in the city from 7 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

Total court fees tied to a first-time misdemeanor DUI conviction in Sonoma County amount to $2,427. That sum doesn’t include the cost of a lawyer, an increase in car insurance premiums or the price of bail if a person is jailed.

Schwartz said that with other costs, the sum can reach $6,000. Schwartz said while people can regain their lives, their jobs and dignity after a DUI conviction, the best method is to avoid one in the first place.

“Don’t drive to the party, don’t take your car,” Schwartz said. “That’s the best advice ever.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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