When law enforcement officers speak of Sgt. Ken Savano, leader of the Petaluma Police Traffic Safety Team, they often say the same thing — his passion for traffic safety stands out.

It takes someone with a different approach to lead the county in an anti-drunk driving effort that has helped propel the city to five straight statewide first place awards for traffic safety.

"Ken (Savano) is successful because of who he is," said Lt. Dan Fish, who has served as Savano's superior for the past three years. "He really focuses on doing the right kind of enforcement and is extremely dedicated. I love my job, but Ken really loves coming to work everyday and making an impact."

With a serious demeanor, tall stance and all-business attitude, Savano returns phone calls behind his desk at the tucked-away traffic safety office located a few blocks from the Petaluma Police station. He attacks his call list with the same no-nonsense methods he has used to deter would-be drunk drivers, speeders and other hazards on Petaluma's streets.

But when he sits down and begins to talk knowledgeably, eloquently and passionately about the importance of traffic safety, the tough exterior melts away to reveal a person who cares deeply about safety on Petaluma's streets.

"On the traffic safety side of law enforcement, so many more people are killed in traffic collisions than in violent crimes," Savano said. "That alone is motivation enough for doing our job."

Unlike other officers who often become passionate about a cause from personal experience, Savano says he somewhat randomly fell into the traffic safety department that now occupies most of his time.

As a teenager, Savano began his policing career in the Sebastopol police department as part of a youth explorer program, which allows young people to gain actual policing experience under the guidance of professionals. Savano, who joined the program at age 16, said that he had been very interested in law enforcement and that the explorer program gave him a chance to nurture that enthusiasm.

"I found it challenging and exciting in Sebastopol," said Savano. "But it was Petaluma that finally gave me a home in patrol in the early 1990s."

Savano was hired as a patrol officer in 1993. Then in 1996 Petaluma got a federal vehicle impound grant, which Savano was selected to implement. It targeted drunk drivers and those driving with suspended licenses. Savano began to underwrite additional grants until Petaluma had received enough federal funding to pay for most of Petaluma's current traffic safety unit.

"We wouldn't have been able to accomplish anything without the Office of Traffic Safety money we've applied for," said Savano. "They've funded our overtime, all our motorcycles, the checkpoint trailer, our mobile command vehicle, our radars and even a current traffic officer position."

As Office of Traffic Safety Awards kept piling up and the department was asked to lead the countywide Avoid the 13 program, which targets DUI offenders several times a year, Petaluma saw drunk driving collisions drop from the third leading cause of accidents in the city to the fifth.

Through it all, Savano appears to have found a niche within the police department, going to what many call unprecedented lengths to ensure safe streets in Petaluma. In an effort to deter would-be offenders from drunk driving, speeding, driving on suspended licenses or other illegal and unsafe actions, Savano said he works hand-in-hand with local media to let people know that his unit is out in force.

"It's been proven that letting people know you are planning a checkpoint reduces the number of drunk drivers," said Savano.

State Avoid the 13 spokesman Chris Cochran said that he can count on one hand the number of officers like Savano in the entire state.

"Around California, there are less than half a dozen officers in his position who are as proactive as he is, and who are pushing the envelope to get the cooperation of his organization, the media and the public," said Cochran. "He does more than probably anyone else in the state."

But even after leading Petaluma to a fifth straight statewide first place award in traffic safety, Savano says that it has never been about the awards.

"My dedication, and the dedication of my guys, has always been towards keeping the people of Petaluma safe," said Savano. "And it isn't about me. Without the officers who work in this division, who sacrifice time with their families and weekends and holidays, none of this would be possible."

For Savano, who's wife travels on business two weeks out of every month and who currently has no children but is the proud parent of two dogs, the life of a traffic safety officer has worked out just fine.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)