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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.

“When we hit this last recession, traffic really dropped off,” Reynolds said. “Gas prices were high and people were out of work. That’s what we see here anyway.”

But traffic fatalities are on the rise in Lake County. In the first six months of this year, 12 people have died in 11 fatal crashes, up from four people in three crashes in the same period last year.

In the Napa County CHP jurisdiction, which includes a slice of eastern Sonoma County, there has been a run in fatal crashes, including the recent death of a Sonoma man who crashed on Highway 116 southeast of Petaluma and became trapped in his burning vehicle.

The CHP investigated four fatal crashes in Napa County during the first six months of the year, double the number from the same period in 2014. In all of 2014, there were eight fatal crashes.

Two weeks ago, a groom-to-be who investigators suspect had been drinking died the night before he was to be married when he lost control of the car on a rural road outside Sonoma and struck a tree, killing himself and injuring a passenger, officials said.

Napa CHP Officer Anna Paulson said she believes the increase in fatalities and serious injuries is at least in part due to distraction and “a society buried in phones.”

“We in general are training our youth to become dependent on their phones and then expect them to put them away while they are driving,” Paulson said.

She suggested parents start early to teach their children safe driving techniques, requiring that phones must be put out of reach while driving. Paulson and her CHP officer husband have three young children and they are attempting to model good driving habits now.

“I know that I am teaching them right now how to drive responsibly by driving responsibly — phone down, food eaten outside the car — and they are also being trained they can be a distraction as passengers if ‘mommy can’t concentrate’ while they fight or even sing too loud,” she said.

“We have to go back and learn to respect the vehicle the way we did before cellphones and dogs made it into the driver’s hands.”

The one area where fatal crashes have gone down is Mendocino County.

So far this year, four people have died in four collisions. A year ago, there were 10 fatal collisions with 12 deaths.

CHP Officer Kylar Adams, spokesman for the Mendocino County CHP region, said an increase in CHP officers on patrol in the rural county may be one reason for the reduction.

Earlier this year, the office filled most of its nine empty positions, getting a few more officers working on each shift. The lack of staff had meant there were often just one to three officers on duty at a time, and now that has about doubled, he said.

“If you drive by and see an officer you tend to drive a little safer, put your cellphone down, put your seatbelt on, take your foot off the gas,” Adams said.

He also said the 2014 numbers appeared to be higher than average and included three people killed in crashes on private properties involving three-wheel-type vehicles.

In 2012 in Mendocino County there were eight collisions with 10 deaths. In 2013, six people died in six collisions and then the numbers rose in 2014. The fatals that year occurred on Highways 1 and 101, on private property and throughout the county — indicating no particular trouble spot, Adams said.

The thread in the 2014 fatal crashes however involved alcohol and drugs. Almost all of those crashes involved impaired drivers, Adams said.

That’s not the case in the 2015 Mendocino crashes, he said.

Adams said he’s also expanded his efforts to spread the word about safe driving to county teens this year and hoped perhaps the reduction in crashes was a sign younger drivers were getting the message.

Officers speaking for other CHP regions said they’ve all stepped up efforts to get people off their cellphones and to reach teen drivers about the inherent dangers of driving. High school classroom sessions with CHP officers, community outreach and added patrols are standard efforts by CHP officers throughout the state.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In 2014, 33 people were killed in 29 crashes on Sonoma County roads patrolled by the CHP. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect figures.

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