A spike in fatal traffic collisions across much of the North Coast during the first six months of the year mirrors a nationwide trend, which some officials blame on a combination of drunken driving and a culture of distraction.
In Sonoma County, 25 people have died in 23 collisions investigated by the CHP so far this year. The county is on track to surpass the number of fatalities during all of last year, when 29 crashes killed 33 people on state-patrolled roadways.
Nationwide, traffic deaths rose 14 percent during the first six months of 2015, compared to the same period last year, according to the nonprofit National Safety Council. Serious injuries were 30 percent higher.
Nearly 19,000 people died in traffic crashes — or 104 each day — across the United States during the first half of the year, a pace that would make 2015 the deadliest driving year since 2007.
On California’s North Coast, traffic fatalities rose 9 percent during the same period, according to CHP statistics for Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. Every county but Mendocino saw an increase in fatalities.
“When we noticed an upward trend toward the middle of the year, we said, ‘What can we do?’ ” CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.
Alcohol and drugs are the biggest factor in Sonoma County’s fatal collisions, followed by speeding and unsafe turning.
Thirteen of the fatal crashes in Sonoma County so far this year involved intoxicated drivers, including five in which the driver had used methamphetamine or marijuana. Without DUI crashes, “we’d be at record lows,” Sloat said.
The notable uptick in traffic deaths this year led Sloat’s commander to double the number of officers patrolling the streets looking for unsafe driving behaviors like speeding in an attempt to prevent crashes, he said. These officers are dedicated to this proactive work, and work separately from officers responding to crashes and other incidents.
Most collisions occur on Highway 101, the North Coast’s transportation artery, though the vast majority result in minor injuries, Sloat said. The county’s narrow, two-lane country roads offer drivers little margin for error, and crashes there are more likely to cause serious injury or death, he said.
Of last year’s fatal crashes, two each took place on River and Adobe roads, and four occurred on Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast.
“You go one way you’re off into the trees, you go the other way and you’re into oncoming traffic,” Sloat said. “That’s not the fault of the road, that is the fault of the driver not being fully engaged in driving.”
Sloat pointed out that over the past decade, fatal crashes are down overall. Fatal crashes dropped about 30 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to the most recent data available for all fatal collisions in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties.
Yet, national officials have said that since 2007 people have been driving more, in part due to declining unemployment rates and declining gas prices, which could be an underlying reason for the increase in traffic deaths. Gas prices are 30 percent lower than they were in 2014, according to the National Traffic Safety Council.
Lake County CHP Officer Kory Reynolds said that gas prices have a clearly visible impact on the number of cars on the roads.