Bay Area

Sonoma County’s Unsurprising Drunk Driving Problem

Monday June 20, 2016

On our way back from a wedding in Sonoma over the weekend, we were nearly slammed into by a drunk driver going over 70 mph.

I was driving north on US-101, Bean and Dave chatting about something, when I saw a sudden rush of headlights in my rearview mirror. The whole episode lasted a half second; the car behind us slammed its brakes and avoided the collision at the last second. (A car was just then pulling in front of me into my lane, so I had nowhere to go.)

Then the driver, maybe panicked and shaken, was suddenly 300 feet behind me, traveling at 40 mph (again, we’re on 101). I watched the car swerving in its lane. It began accelerating again, and Dave calmly told me I needed to switch lanes NOW and let it pass. As I did so, it careened past us and drove erratically down the next exit ramp.

This was our first brush with a drunk driver in Sonoma. What I’ve found out since, you won’t be surprised, is that this is a major issue in Sonoma County. In 2013 (the last year CA DOT has published county records on this), there were 152 drunk driving related deaths or injuries just in Sonoma County. That is a drunk driving related death or injury nearly every other day.

(To put this in perspective, Napa County had only 41 drunk driving related deaths or injuries, Marin had 34, and Mendocino only 10. Sonoma is an outlier in the North Bay.)

A recent episode of KQED’s Forum tackled this issue among many faced by Sonoma County these days. A woman called in to say that every day when her family leaves their Sonoma home, they aren’t sure if all of them will make it back, due to drunk drivers. Their entire community has the same fears. Think about that.

Sonoma and its Russian River Valley have become internationally renown as the home of world class pinots, merlots, and syrahs. Its economy and tourism is based largely on alcohol consumption. Or, as it’s known: alcohol tourism. Stack that up against its beautiful winding country roads, lined with mossy Oak and Walnut trees and unlit by street lights, it really is no surprise that drunk driving has become such a tragically common occurrence here.

In recent years, Sonoma has been trying to combat the scourge of drunk drivers on its roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given California a grant for that purpose, of which roughly $420,000 makes its way to Sonoma County. The money is used for overtime pay for police officers and seminars and training for prosecutors and officers. (A recent article says that it takes one police officer 2 to 3 hours to book a driver on a DUI charge, which means you need even more officers out there nabbing drunk drivers to cover for him or her.)

One Healdsburg police officer, Will Van Vleck, earned the distinction last year of arresting over 100 drunk drivers during the course of 2015. As he puts it, “If you keep your eyes open, they just find you.” That sounds about right.

And we’ve all seen this haven’t we? If you’ve been to a winery, you’ve seen groups topple in, and then watched all of them take part in a wine tasting. At one tasting years ago, the designated driver (who was “of a certain age” as they say – FYI, these aren’t always irresponsible yuppies) cackled that he was the driver! And then winked as he downed some syrah. The group swayed, stumbled, and hooted through the vineyard tour, and then piled themselves back into their rental van, “designated driver” getting behind the wheel.

Please just stop. Please just knock it off. It’s not funny. It’s not caaah-RAZY Sonoma vacation times. If you’ve had a glass, you aren’t fit to drive. If you’ve had a “taste”, you aren’t fit to drive.

For the rest of us, I will definitely think twice before heading up to another evening wedding in Sonoma. As beautiful as these weddings can be (OH MY GOD SO PRETTY YOU GUYS) is it worth risking our lives? We had even tried to be responsible, leaving the wedding an hour into the reception, to avoid driving the winding roads after nightfall. Of course, the problem is that we can’t control other drivers.

As a friend put it upon our return, “Sonoma is about a big cookout at your rental and drinking the wine you bought that day, far from the roads.” I think that has to be our new family rule as well.

Be careful out there, everyone. Have you ever had a drunk driving incident in Sonoma? Do you go out of your way to avoid drunk drivers in wine country?

2 Responses to “Sonoma County’s Unsurprising Drunk Driving Problem”

  1. Thank you for posting your frightening experience . . . I was the victim of an impaired driver in Marin County when I was 18 years-old, about a month before my 19th birthday. That was 40 years ago. I was a passenger on a motorcycle and we were broadsided. The impact changed my life forever and I live a hideous scar, pain and a left leg 2″ shorter (compound fracture) among other issues. The driver never spent a moment in jail . . . it was a different time. I have a 21 year-old son and when he and his friends drink they put their keys in a pile and do not let one another drive. My son has spent cold nights sleeping in his pickup after having a couple beers because he grew up seeing the result of what drinking and driving can do . . . I will share this on my Mama Loves the Beach Facebook page . . .


    2/26/2017 at 9:55 am

  2. Thank you so much for telling your story. I can’t even imagine what you must have gone through, but I’m so happy to hear that your son and his friends take this so seriously. You’ve raised a good kid.


    2/27/2017 at 6:41 pm