Gary R. Herbert, the Republican governor of Utah, signed into law on Thursday the most stringent drunken driving standards of any state in the country. Under the new legislation, drivers will be considered impaired at a blood alcohol content, or BAC, of 0.05 percent. In all other states, the legal threshold for impairment is higher, at o.08.
For a 160-pound man, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses as a reference, the difference between a BAC of 0.05 and a BAC of 0.08 is a single beverage — it is the difference between drinking three drinks in one hour versus four. Put another way, to stay under the legal limit, a 160-pound man should have no more than two drinks in one hour on an empty stomach. Reaching a BAC of 0.05 for a 137-pound woman would take three drinks in two hours, without food.
“Public safety is our focus,” Herbert said in a statement on Thursday, explaining why his state broke ranks with the other 49. “This law does not target drinking; it is a public safety law that targets impaired driving.”
The governor had until March 29 to make a decision about the law, which passed the Utah Senate at the beginning of March by an 18-11 vote. As recently as Monday, the governor had not made up his mind whether he was going to sign the bill, reported the Salt Lake Tribune.
Supporters of Utah’s HB 155 note that this change will only affect drivers who first fail field sobriety exams and then have their BAC measured by police. The law, which goes into effect at the end of 2018, follows recent unsuccessful attempts in two other states, Hawaii and Washington, to lower alcohol blood levels to 0.05.
People from Utah were split about the decision. Some of the most vocal opponents of the law included the state’s restaurants as well as the ski and snowboard industries. They worried that the law would scare away tourists. “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation,” read an ad that the American Beverage Institute recently ran in a few Utah newspapers. On its Responsible Limits website, the trade association said that a 120-pound woman would hit the new threshold after a single drink.
“We don’t want to be first because it creates the image that we are going to be harder on those people who may consume alcohol. It’s not a crime to consume alcohol,” said Melva Sine, the Utah Restaurant Association’s executive director, to the Salt Lake Tribune. Sine and other food industry representatives met with Herbert to persuade the governor not to sign the law.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that, of more than 1,700 phone calls to Herbert’s office regarding the law, callers favored a veto 9 to 1.
Herbert maintained that it was not a matter of Utah’s reputation. The governor, like the majority of Utah, belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Roughly 3 in 5 Utah residents, as a 2014 survey found are Mormons. Many are teetotalers, as the church’s scripture advises against consuming alcoholic drinks.
“People are going to try to say this is a religious issue. And that is just absolutely false. This is a public safety issue,” he said at a Thursday news conference, according to the AP.
Utah has long been at the forefront of stricter alcohol regulations in the United States. In some cases, where Utah led, others followed. In 1983, for instance, the Beehive state became the first in the nation to lower the BAC threshold from 0.10 to 0.08. At various points over the next two decades, 0.08 became the norm, with the final state, Minnesota, adopting the standard as late as 2005.
Other rules regarding booze, though, remain unique to Utah. The space above a bar itself has become a legal battleground; under current Utah law, establishments must erect physical barriers, nicknamed “Zion curtains,” to prevent patrons from watching bartenders mix drinks. Various legislators have attempted to dismantle the curtains, with one effort championed by Utah’s House majority leader, Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville), earlier this year.
After making the decision to lower the BAC limit to 0.05, Herbert posted to Twitter a 2001 scientific review from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The review noted that, “A large body of creditable research over many years has clearly shown that impairment of tasks necessary for safe driving begins at levels as low as 0.05 percent.”
Evidence suggests that one drink can have a significant impact. The reasoning is straightforward: Lower blood alcohol levels decrease the odds of a fatal accident. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the odds of a fatal crash double as blood alcohol levels increase from zero to 0.05, as The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote in early March. The odds double again as blood alcohol levels increase from 0.05 to 0.08.
Two proponents of a legal limit of 0.05, James C. Fell and Robert B. Voas, scientists at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, noted that arrests would increase slightly but “not enough to overburden the criminal justice system.” Deaths would fall by 8 percent, they estimated in a 2014 letter for the journal Addiction, were driving limits lowered to 0.05 across the United States — about 800 to 900 lives saved per year.
The stricter limit brought Utah in line with other countries. France, Italy, Russia and Australia, not known for a lack of drinking culture, all have thresholds at 0.05 BAC or lower. “If we look at the world,” Herbert said, according to Fox 13, “we’re not weird.”
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