Rise in Petaluma DUI crashes signals grim return to normalcy
When a warrant granted Petaluma crash investigators access to the Honda Civic’s onboard computer system, it finally became clear how the driver of the car managed to ramp over a berm, crash past a tree and concrete barrier and leave his vehicle resting in a crumpled heap along Lichau Creek one-tenth of a mile from the initial collision point.
Austin Matsler-David was screaming southbound on Stony Point road, according to the car’s computer data, hitting 101 mph before slamming into Jon Bonawitz’s Ford F-150, sending that vehicle tumbling off the west side of the road and ejecting and killing Bonawitz, a 52-year-old Petaluma resident.
It was near midnight on April 17. But the crash, later attributed to Matsler-David driving under the influence, was so loud, nearby residents heard it and were able to alert police. Every officer working that night helped with the scene. It was the site of Petaluma’s only fatal wreck this year, but it also marked a moment when local law enforcement began to sense a surge of DUI crashes signaling a grim return to normal after the 2020, lockdown-induced lull.
Matsler-David survived the crash with minor injuries, and he has since pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI causing injuries. He faces up to 10 years in prison, and a Sept. 22 court date looms.
With DUI numbers, and crashes, ticking up, Petaluma Police are working to make sure this fatal crash is a one-off case.
“Usually we talk about enforcement, education and engineering,” Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said during a short drive to the crash site last month. “It’s usually enforcement and education. Partly what we’re trying to do is, ‘Let’s look at this particular case here.’”
Lyons and officer Garrett Sholin came prepared with a white, three-ring binder filled with notes from the crash investigation and photos of the crushed vehicles. Bonawitz’s truck was missing driver’s side rear tire, and much of its roof. The driver’s side was caved in dramatically.
Matsler-David’s Honda Civic was dented throughout, with a broken front windshield as photos show the car peering out from the creek bed that April night.
It’s little surprise DUI arrests and crashes are up from 2020, a year that featured coronavirus-induced lockdowns that limited traffic on roadways to the point that air quality improved worldwide.
The numbers, provided late last week by the Petaluma Police Department, show more of a return to normal than a precipitous increase, but they have nevertheless troubled traffic enforcement officers here, in Sonoma County’s second largest city.
Through Sept. 1, Petaluma Police had arrested 105 people on suspicion of driving under the influence, while investigating 39 DUI-related crashes, according to city data.
Both outpace 2020 numbers, when police arrested 95 people and investigated 40 crashes. But the numbers are once again reaching pre-pandemic pace, when 212 people were arrested for DUI and crash investigators worked 85 DUI-related wrecks.
The numbers, at least for DUI arrests, could be worse, but the Petaluma Police Department has suspended its checkpoint program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite that, the feeling, at least among some traffic cops, is that things are getting worse.
“Consistently, it’s been one-to-two DUIs per night,” Sholin said.
Sholin, who has worked for the Petaluma Police Department for the past four years, said the people he has pulled over have varying reactions. Some, he said, realize they got caught.
“Some people really think they can make it home,” he said. “Really, don’t even take the chance. Take an Uber or a taxi – anything that doesn’t put you behind the wheel of a car, because you never know what can happen. If you do that, you could end up in jail or somebody could end up seriously injured or dead.”
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.