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Historical trend for fatalities from crashes

Napa County motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians have almost twice the chance of being seriously hurt in traffic accidents as residents living in the nine-county Bay Area as a whole.

The county in 2012 had the highest per-capita traffic crash serious injury rate in the region. Its 59 serious injury accidents translated to 42.4 per 100,000 residents, compared to the Bay Area average of 23.2.

In addition, 193 people died in fatal crashes in Napa County from 2001 to 2012. The per-capita rate for most years was well above the Bay Area average.

But the statistical news isn’t all bad. Both traffic accident-related serious injuries and deaths in the Napa County fell dramatically over a decade.

A new Bay Area data base called “Vital Signs” by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission includes online maps that show the location for each serious injury accident and fatal accident in the region from 2001 through 2012.

Why does Napa County’s per-capita accident injury rate stand out amid the Bay Area? Vautin attributes this partly to tourism. A lot of people come to Napa County for the weekends or vacations, said MTC Senior Transportation Planner David Vautin.

That means far more people are driving county roads than the local population that is used for the per-capita calculation. Still, Vautin pointed out that Napa County also has a high serious injury accident rate on a miles-traveled basis – again, almost twice the Bay Area average.

Another factor is the county’s higher-than-average rate for driving-under-the-influence incidents, Vautin said.

From 2010 to 2012, Napa County averaged 1,015 DUI arrests annually. By comparison, San Francisco County with six times the population averaged 1,658 and Solano County with three times the population averaged 1,554, California Department of Motor Vehicles data shows.

In 2012, Napa County ranked 21st out of California’s 58 counties for alcohol-related accidents, the California Office of Traffic Safety reports.

Drunken driving and wine country might seem like an obvious link. But a recent report by the DUI Prevention Coalition found that beer-related DUI’s were three times as prevalent in Napa County during 2014 as wine-related ones.

CHP Officer Marc Renspurger said he’s seen no evidence that an epidemic of drunk drivers are leaving wineries.

“I think the wineries do a great job of their people being able to see what’s happening with their customers and being able to address that,” said Renspurger, spokesman for the local CHP office.

City of Napa Police Sgt. Brian Campagna also sees more at play in the local DUI’s than tourists headed home from wineries.

“The majority of DUI’s we process are locals, and a lot of it is beer consumption,” Campagna said.

Renspurger sees a factor in Napa County that can lead to serious traffic accidents – the number of undivided, two-lane rural roads. Motorists who make a mistake can find themselves hitting a tree or hitting another car or going down a ditch.

“There’s no forgiveness on those types of roads,” he said.

A bright spot is that Napa County’s highways and streets have grown safer over the past decade for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Those 59 serious traffic accident injuries in 2012 compare to 109 in 2006.

The statistic showing Napa County residents in 2012 were twice as likely to be seriously injured in a traffic accident as the average Bay Area resident is also an improvement. In 2006, they were three times as likely to be involved in such a crash.

Another positive trend is that, though 193 people died in traffic accidents from 2001 through 2012, the annual numbers dropped dramatically toward the end of this period. Seven died in 2012, compared to 24 in 2004.

In 2012, Napa residents were just as likely to be involved in a fatal vehicle accident as residents throughout the Bay Area. In 2004, they were almost three times as likely to be, the Vital Signs data shows.

These drops can’t be attributed solely to less people on the road in the wake of the Great Recession. The rates when calculated on a miles-traveled basis also fell from peak levels, as they did for the Bay Area as a whole.

Vautin attributed the drop in annual local traffic fatalities in part to improvements in technology that have made vehicles safer. He also credited increased traffic enforcement by the local CHP and city of Napa police.

Respurger agreed that the CHP has stepped up enforcement. It is also doing such things as working with the cycling community to promote safe riding techniques. He noted the large number of cyclists on Silverado Trail and on county backroads.

Campagna pointed to such enforcement efforts as DUI checkpoints, DUI saturation patrols, motorcycle safety enforcement, distracted driving enforcement and red light cameras. He cited a $364,790 California Office of Traffic Safety grant recently awarded to the city of Napa for traffic enforcement, crash prevention and educational efforts.

Such programs are one reason traffic injury accidents are falling, Campagna said. “They’ve had an impact,” he said.

The Vital Signs data shows where work needs to be done.

Napa County’s major road – Highway 29, which traverses the valley’s spine and passes through all five cities – was its deadliest road from 2001-2012 when 36 fatal accidents took place along these 48 miles.

But Silverado Trail had almost as many fatal accidents at 34 and is only 29 miles long. Two accident hot spots were on sections devoid of sharp curves. Five fatal accidents took place north of Yountville Cross Road and six north of Skellenger Lane.

Napa County had three fatal accidents along its short stretch of Interstate 80. The freeway crosses through the county between the American Canyon Road interchange and Vallejo.

The city of Napa had 31 fatal accidents on its streets and the state highways passing through the city. At least nine involved pedestrians and one involved a cyclist, though many of the accidents listed in the Vital Signs report don’t include this information.

Napa County and its cities are looking for ways to make their roads safer.

Highway 12 through Jameson Canyon was widened a year ago from two lanes to four lanes and a concrete median barrier was added. Ten fatal accidents killing 15 people took place there from 2001 through 2012, five in Napa County and five in Solano County.

“The Jameson Canyon (project) was a huge thing,” said Kate Miller, executive director of the Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency. “We were driving 55 mph with no barrier in the middle.”

Her agency is looking at improving Imola Avenue for pedestrians and bicyclists. That involves coordination, given that various stretches of the road are under the jurisdiction of the county, the city of Napa and the state Department of Transportation.

Imola Avenue had two fatal accidents from 2001 through 2002, one involving a pedestrian and another motorist. It had 14 serious injury accidents that resulted in 28 people being hurt, the Vital Signs data shows.

Miller sees city of Napa plans for roundabouts along California Boulevard at First and Second streets and perhaps at Silverado Trail at Third Street as improving safety. Though some motorists might be wary of roundabouts, she sees pluses.

“They force you to slow down, because you have to slow down,” Miller said. “People are just more cautious and more careful.”

Campagna mentioned another way to prevent people from becoming a traffic accident statistic.

“A lot of it is changing driver behavior, which is hard to do,” he said. “These accidents, though they are accidents, are preventable if people will stay off their cell phone, if they won’t drive as fast, if they won’t drink and drive, if they’ll wear their seat belt.”

The Vital Signs report on Bay Area traffic injuries concluded that “more work remains to be done to make sure motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists can all get to their destinations safely.”

Go to http://www.vitalsigns.mtc.ca.gov to see the Vital Signs data. The traffic data is under the “environment” section.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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