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Sonoma County drivers slowing down


Either drivers in Sonoma County are getting better at obeying traffic laws or they're simply fed up with paying ever-increasing fines.

Those are just two theories about new data released by Superior Court officials that shows a whopping 30 percent decline in the number of tickets handed out in the first six months of this year.

"The price of tickets has gone up quite a bit," said CHP Officer Jon Sloat. "They are not cheap. You don't want to get one."

Between January and July, officers patrolling city streets, county highways and state roads from Petaluma to Cloverdale wrote 35,850 tickets for violations ranging from running stop signs to speeding. The previous year, they wrote 50,571 tickets over the same period.

Just what has triggered the change is anyone's guess.

The CHP said public education about dangerous driving is starting to pay off in a county with its share of high-profile fatal accidents. Also, near-continuous construction on the main artery, Highway 101, has forced people to slow down, Sloat said.

"It's lightened the load," Sloat said.

Another factor could be an awareness of rising fines. Each year, the state adds surcharges and other administrative fees to base fines. For example, an improper turn violation is $234 while a ticket for driving 26 mph over the speed limit is $480.

"It's about a third of my paycheck," said Greg Boitos of Santa Rosa, who got the latter fine about three years ago and was at the courthouse last week getting a copy of his driving record. "It's a hassle. And it's unnecessary if you are going the speed limit."

Still another cause could be staff reductions at police departments that have taken officers from the streets. Petaluma police Sgt. Ken Savano said his department is down to 68 officers from a high of 76 just a few years ago.

Because of that, Petaluma police have written about 4,900 tickets so far this year, which is 20 percent less than last year. At the same time, there were 588 crashes, which is 20 percent more than last year, he said.

He pointed to a Northwestern University study that shows a correlation between tickets and traffic accidents. It said those who got tickets are more likely to change bad driving habits.

"Writing tickets is the least desirable part of our job," said Savano, who is in charge of traffic enforcement. "We know there is a fine associated with it. But we also know it is necessary to change behavior and make our roadways safer."

Savano said it's coming at a time when the economy is improving and there are more people on the road going to work. Traffic officers are playing catch-up to avoid a surge in crashes in the near future, he said.

"We're headed to a bad place," Savano said.

Santa Rosa saw only a 2.3 percent drop during the first six months of the year, when officers wrote 10,195 tickets, said Sgt. Brad Conners, who oversees the traffic division.

In the first six months of last year, officers issued 10,439 tickets.

Conners couldn't explain the difference but said he hoped it was a measure of safer driving.

"I'd like to think our prevention efforts are working," he said.

The decline is a financial hit for police departments and the state. About $1.2 million of the $17 million collected from tickets in Sonoma County in 2010 was distributed among the 10 law enforcement agencies.

Historically, the Santa Rosa Police Department and CHP issue the most tickets countywide, said Sonoma County Superior Court executive officer Jose Guillen, who tracks the distribution of fine money.

"It means less revenue for all the agencies," he said.

Meanwhile, the reduction is noticeable in county traffic court, where about 1 in 7 people who receive tickets each year contest them or ask for a fine reduction.

Commissioner Lawrence Ornell, who handled about 12,000 cases in 2011, said there are a lot more empty seats in his courtroom these days.

"The numbers are pretty dramatic," Ornell said. "It's a third less tickets."