Utah sets lowest DUI limit in country: anomaly or trendsetter?

Utah's state legislature voted to change the legal blood-alcohol content for driving from 0.08 to 0.05, a move some say could decrease the number of fatal crashes related to impaired driving. 

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
Market Street Grill server Colton Prestwich works behind the 'Zion Curtain,' in Salt Lake City.

Drivers in Utah will be subject to the nation's tightest drinking and driving laws, if a bill passed by the state’s legislature reducing the legal blood-alcohol content for driving from 0.08 to 0.05 goes into effect.

Lawmakers voted to pass the measure last week, and it now moves to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk for a signature. If passed, the new regulations would take effect on Dec. 30 of next year.

Drivers continue to get behind the wheel while intoxicated despite advocacy campaigns that have raised awareness of the issue and efforts by legislators to bring greater restrictions and punishments for impaired driving. Those efforts and climbing social stigma, as well as access to public transportation or ride-hailing services such as Uber, have decreased the frequency of the offense, but fatal crashes after binge drinking still claimed more than 10,000 lives in 2015, nationwide.

The approach to combating the public health issue has taken two prongs: punishing those who drink and drive and getting them off the road, and sending a message that driving under the influence isn't socially acceptable.

“To some extent, [anti-DUI legislation] helps express a social norm: that it’s not OK to drive drunk. I like the idea of different states trying to different approaches to see how effective it is,” Jody Sindelar, a public health and economics professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “It doesn't solve the problem of the very drunk driver, but there are other methods for that.”

Utah, steeped in Mormon traditions – the global headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is located in Salt Lake City, and the religion eschews the consumption of alcohol – has taken a harsh approach to liquor laws. Serving hours end around 1 a.m., happy hour is banned, servers are required to prepare drinks out of patrons' view, and any beverage with an alcohol content above 4 percent is deemed “liquor” rather than beer or wine.

And there’s some evidence that sweeping restrictions have worked. Just 43 of the 10,265 deadly alcohol-related crashes in 2015 took place in Utah, making it the state with the sixth-lowest fatality rate for drunk driving incidents.

But even with its current prohibitions and above-average record, the state is poised to rein in drinking and driving further, a move that could send a message about responsible alcohol consumption and set a trend for other states to follow.

"The time was long overdue for this," said state Rep. Norman Thurston (R) to the Los Angeles Times. "This is about behavior and we hope that other states take a close look and move in a similar direction."

The new blood-alcohol limit, at .05, would put a man weighing around 150 pounds over the legal limit at around two drinks, while a smaller woman might exceed the threshold after just one drink, according to the American Beverage Institute, a trade group in the restaurant industry that has opposed the change.

While strict, many say the time has come to try new ways to curtail drinking and driving. In Utah, the number of deaths related to drunk driving jumped from 23 to 45 between 2013 and 2014, marking the highest number the state had seen in a decade.

While it's leading the charge in the US, Utah is following the example set in more than 100 countries in the Middle East, South America, Europe, and Asia that have already lowered their limits to anywhere between .05 and zero.

Utah could, however, become a convincing model for other states, should its efforts succeed.

“There’s been an increase in deaths related to drunk driving in the last couple of years. If that change is reversed by the new law, I think other states will take notice,” George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, says in an interview with the Monitor. “If it has a minimal effect, then they’ll take notice of that as well.”

Some have criticized the measure, noting more than 75 percent of Utah’s fatal crashes in 2015 involving alcohol occurred when a driver had exceeded a blood-alcohol content of .15.

"Utah legislators missed an opportunity today to target the hard-core drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities and instead decided to criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," said American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell in a statement last week.

And while the National Transportation Safety Board has also urged states to drop their legal thresholds to 0.05 or lower, pushback from the restaurant industry has discouraged many localities from adopting the recommendation.

But experts say the law will likely encourage more responsible behavior, such as hiring an Uber driver or using a designated driver, rather than convince people not to drink at all.

“I believe it’s not going to have a dramatic effect on the restaurant industry,” Thomas Babor, a public health professor at the University of Connecticut in Mansfield, Conn., tells the Monitor. “People who are careful about their drinking will not be affected. It’s the people whose blood-alcohol content levels were high. Those people are going to, I think, be much more attentive to how many drinks they have, and maybe will wise up in terms of getting a designated driver in their group to refrain from drinking at a restaurant or bar.”

For those already drinking double the legal limit, it’s not clear that a lower limit would have much impact on risky behavior. But as part of a package of restrictions that discourage heavy drinking and driving, the law could make the state's streets safer. 

“Utah is making a wise choice in terms of being at the forefront here,” Dr. Babor says. “There’s a good reason why Utah has [one of] the lowest rates of alcohol problems in the country. It’s part because of the Mormon religion, but it’s also because they have very effective alcohol control policies. I think is a wise way to manage what has long been an intractable problem.”

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