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Police sergeant leads county's successful DUI efforts

Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano talks to a family whose car was impounded during a DUI / drivers license checkpoint set up on Old Redwood Highway at North McDowell Boulevard on Friday, July 23, 2010. The driver of the vehicle was driving without his license.

Crista Jeremiason/The Press Democrat
Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

Ken Savano doesn't mind if you're out on the town and have a drink or so. But just be sure you're not driving afterward when you shouldn't be because if you are, Savano is hoping you'll wind up arrested and in jail.

“Many people say, ‘I'm fine. I'm OK,' but they don't realize how the alcohol will affect them on the road,” said Savano, a Petaluma police sergeant who also is coordinator of Sonoma County's anti-DUI task force, the Avoid the 13, which includes all police agencies in the county.

As the face and voice of the countywide police effort to prevent DUI-related deaths and injuries, Savano said, “It's not personal. This is our job.”

And that job for the task force includes stepped up DUI crackdowns, including checkpoints, special DUI patrols, searches of those on DUI probation and parole and monitoring of habitual DUI offenders. The task force holds four, two-week crackdowns a year, and the next one starts Friday, with checkpoints that night and Saturday.

A factor that Savano points to as a success of the Avoid the 13 is the number of fatal DUI crashes that occur during the crackdowns: Since 2009, there have been none.

Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano's Harley-Davidson police motorcycle sports his name on its front fender. Click to enlarge. Road Warrior photo

Savano said he's not opposed to people going out and having a good time. He just wants them to be sure they're being responsible when they get behind the wheel. He said he does go out and drinks but he makes sure he's responsible.

And he said party hosts need to be doing right, offering their guests water at times instead of alcohol, calling a cab for them or otherwise finding a way home for those who shouldn't drive.

The 40-year-old Savano, who grew up in the Rohnert Park-Cotati area, has been a Petaluma officer for 16 years, with the last two as the Avoid the 13 coordinator. Before Petaluma, he was an Explorer, dispatcher and reserve officer with Sebastopol police.

This year, for the fourth straight time, the Petaluma Police Department was honored in the California Law Enforcement Challenge as the top agency in fighting impaired driving, and Savano was honored individually for his efforts. Last year, Petaluma won the national police award regarding anti-impaired driving efforts.

Savano said the number of alcohol-related crashes in Petaluma has dropped 20 percent each of the last three or four years.

He credits the drop to DUI checkpoints, special patrols looking for DUIs, the serving of DUI warrants, police checks on convicted drivers on probation or parole and public education efforts, including media reports publicizing crackdowns and arrests.

“The problem of DUIs still exists, but we have impacted it,” Savano said.

Last year, 3,073 DUI cases were filed in the county, according to court records.

The seriousness of DUIs has changed in the eyes of society over the years, he said, noting it once was considered more of a family issue that a criminal justice matter.

DUI charges years ago often were knocked down to reckless driving, but no more, he said.

The Avoid the 13 task force is financed by grants from the state Office of Traffic Safety, which gets the money from the federal government. The task force is in the process of receiving a grant for the next fiscal year, he said.

Savano said part of the federal gasoline tax is allocated for such DUI campaigns across the nation.

As part of applying for the state/federal grants, Savano submits an application that's basically a book about an inch and a half thick outlining the Avoid the 13 campaign and highlighting some of the arrests.

One arrest was a Santa Rosa man charged with his 19th DUI and whose arrests went back years.

“If someone was caught 19 times, imagine how many times they weren't caught,” Savano said.

He said he'd much rather have habitual violators who are feeling tempted to drink to call police for help before it's too late.

“For those who choose not to be responsible or to deal with their problem, they can count on us coming by and checking on them to help them along,” he said.

—Road.Warrior, The Press Democrat

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