By MIKE MORRIS
and SCOTT PESZNECKER
Even with six months left in this year, the number of people killed on Mother Lode highways and county roads already is twice the total for all of last year.
The numbers say it all: Since January, accidents on county roads have killed 33 people in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.
"We can't keep killing our people off like this," said Jan Moon, an officer with the California Highway Patrol's San Andreas office.
"Too many people are busy changing their CDs, talking on their cell phone or looking for something instead of pulling over."
Four young Tuolumne County residents died Memorial Day weekend when the driver lost control and his new, small car went off a cliff near the Parrotts Ferry Bridge.
In Calaveras County, a Vallecito man died in April when his car rolled off Parrotts Ferry Road, not far from his home.
Days before that, a Calaveras County father and his three children were killed in a head-on accident on Highway 12 between San Andreas and Valley Springs.
A San Jose driver and his wife and his parents, visiting from India, were all killed June 22 on Highway 120, east of Groveland. Witnesses have told the CHP the man's car was weaving before it ran off the road, rolled, went down a 40-foot drop and hit a tree.
One of the most difficult aspect of the rash of crashes for officials is that they are happening everywhere, said Officer Brad Schultz of CHP's Jamestown office.
Calaveras County has seen 346 traffic accidents this year, including eight fatal crashes in which 12 people have died. In all of 2002, there were just five fatalities in the county.
In Tuolumne County, 13 of the county's 470 accidents so far this year resulted in 20 deaths. For all of last year, 21 people died in 17 fatal accidents.
Four of Calaveras County's fatal accidents were alcohol related. Through the end of May, 109 people had been arrested for driving under the influence a 16 percent increase over last year.
"This is extremely disturbing. Half of our fatals are alcohol related a very preventable cause," said San Andreas CHP Lt. Les Quinn.
Police officials said that during 1999, 18 deaths resulted from 627 accidents, making it one of the worst years on record. That same year, however, DUI accidents decreased by 13 percent.
In 2001, Calaveras County had a total of 634 accidents with 14 fatalities, two of which were alcohol related. And last year there were only five deaths three alcohol related out of 805 accidents.
Schultz said DUI arrests for Tuolumne County are on pace with previous years. There were 150 arrests midway through 2001, 184 midway through last year and 163 so far this year.
But, Schultz said, alcohol has not been the key contributor to the increase of fatalities in Tuolumne County.
In fact, he said, there's no common factor among the fatal accidents.
"I think it's a bad coincidence," Schultz said.
Two accidents were caused by excessive speed and two happened when drivers crossed double-yellow lines trying to pass other cars.
Other causes included alcohol, drivers falling asleep at the wheel or simply not paying attention to their surroundings, Schultz said.
"It's terrible to be faced with this," he said. "Nobody likes handling fatal accidents, and it's a shame these are happening out here."
Speeding is the lead cause of accidents in Calaveras County, Moon said.
Moon said she finds that local citizens, as opposed to tourists, tend to be the speed violators because people familiar with the area become too relaxed and don't concentrate on how they're driving.