Tahoe streets among worst in Calif. | NevadaAppeal.com

Tahoe streets among worst in Calif.

William Ferchland

Jim Grant/Appeal News Service California Highway Patrol officer Jason Nichols waves a motorist through a sobriety checkpoint Wednesday night in South Lake Tahoe.

South Lake Tahoe is a vacation town. Drinks don’t stop once you start gambling in nearby Nevada casinos. Icy roads add to the hazard.

There are several reasons car accidents happen in the city, enough reasons for California’s Office of Traffic Safety to give the city’s police department $225,000 to combat the problem.

Through 2006, money will be used to institute measures such as a full-time officer to enforce and examine traffic safety. It means more speed checks, drunken-driving arrests and investigations into why accidents happen.

Drunken driving will receive the most attention by officers. According to a study comparing 105 cities of similar size, South Lake Tahoe ranked second in accidents involving alcohol.

Police Lt. Terry Daniels said the department received a similar grant in 1984, which funded a traffic-enforcement team of four officers. The team lasted 10 years before it was disbanded after budgets cuts.

That left traffic enforcement to officers on patrol consumed by other duties, such as working their beats and responding to emergencies.

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“Traffic has been second to calls for service, which it has to be,” Daniels said.

Enter officer Shannon Laney, who will become the full-time traffic enforcer. A five-year veteran with the department, Laney said he wants his duty understood.

“I want to be known,” Laney said. “I want my name and face out there.”

Something not so visible to the public will be an $80,000 Geographic Information System that will crunch the number of collisions, drunken-driving arrests and other traffic mishaps. Problem areas on the computerized map will be listed, and efforts to fix the faults can be tracked.

A map punctured by pins details the traffic mess in the city. Brad Vidro, the public works director, is in charge of the map, which is at his department, three miles from the police station.

Vidro said his department uses the traffic information to determine if accidents are caused by poor signage or other areas under the responsibility of the city. When the year ends, a photograph is taken of the pin map to record the number of accidents and compare it to past photographs of the map, Vidro said.

Part of the grant will fund overtime pay for officers to focus on traffic issues or conduct sobriety checkpoints, like the one Wednesday night. Five people were arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, said Lt. Marty Hale. Usually two or three people are placed into custody on suspicion of drunken driving.

There were about 550 applicants for traffic grants for 2005, said Marilyn Saban, assistant director of operations at Office of Traffic Safety.

About half of the applicants received grants.

“We feel pretty confident that when we fund projects like this it has an impact,” Saban said.

“You’ve got problems that other communities may not have,” she said.

Problems include the population swelling from about 23,000 to 100,000 on the weekends. The vacation-type atmosphere that ski resorts and Lake Tahoe characterizes – and 24-hour drinking in Nevada – elicits a carefree attitude.

In 2003, 45 percent of accidents involving deaths or injuries were alcohol related, the department’s grant application stated. In 2001, it was 37 percent.

The grant is part of $8.1 million given to Northern California agencies, which was a portion of the $74.2 million given to the state from the federal government.

The money is gathered mostly from gas taxes, Saban said.

Traffic enforcement patrols by Laney and other officers working overtime will occur throughout the holiday season. With gas prices dropping, New Year’s Eve falling on a Friday, and the ski season in full swing, Daniels is expecting a larger-than-normal crowd next weekend.

E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com.

RANK OF SOUTH LAKE TAHOE 2002 TRAFFIC INCIDENTS

Rankings out of 108 like-size California cities

Total fatal and injury 10

Alcohol involved 2

Speed related 20

Nighttime incidents 4

Hit-and-run 12

Involving drivers under age 21 8

Involving drivers ages 21-34 2

Number of drunken-driving arrests 186

Source: South Lake Tahoe Police Dept.