Utah Sets New BAC Standard

Last month Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law one of the most talked about measures in that state. With his signature, Utah became the first state to lower its legal threshold for driving under the influence (DUI) from a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. The law takes effect on December 30, 2018—just before New Year’s Eve, traditionally one of the worst days for drunk driving crashes.

Many predictions, both dire and rosy, have been made about what this change means for Utah. Will DUI arrests and convictions go up? Will Utah see fewer traffic deaths? Will tourism suffer?

Lots of Opinion. What Are the Facts?

The new law has been called good, bad, weird, extreme, an act of leadership, a job killer, and many other things. It’s impossible to know the actual effect in advance, but we wanted to take a look at some numbers from the past to see if they give any indication of what to expect.

What’s in the Law?

The new law is very simple. It makes only three changes to existing regulations. Two, which have caused no controversy, define a “novice” driver under Utah law and instruct law enforcement agencies to give field sobriety test training to all officers. It’s the third change, that tiny revision of “.08” to “.05” in seven places in the existing statute, that’s caused the commotion.

New, but Not New

The law’s sponsor, Provo Rep. Norm Thurston, noted that while this law gives Utah the lowest BAC threshold in the United States, it’s not a visionary change: More than one hundred countries already use this lower standard. In fact, for many years the United States has already imposed an even lower limit—0.04 percent—on commercial vehicle operators. Also in Utah, as in many states, drivers under the age of twenty-one are not allowed to have any detectable alcohol in their systems. The law gives Utah no new DUI penalties, they just take effect at a lower BAC.

History and Results

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been encouraging states to make this change since 2013, most recently on their list of “Most Wanted” safety improvements released last November. That seemed to go largely unheeded, but Utah has shown that someone was listening.

There’s history here: In 1982, the NTSB urged states to lower their limit to 0.08 percent from the then standard of 0.10 percent. Utah was the first to do so, in 1983. By 2004, every state had.

Opponents say the change will make no difference, but the NTSB cites data showing that crashes happen about twice as often when drivers have a 0.08 level or higher versus when they’re at 0.05 percent or lower. They estimate that adopting the lower standard nationwide would prevent about 1,800 fatalities annually.

How much difference did the reduction to 0.08 percent make? It’s hard to say, but some numbers are difficult to argue with. In the 1970s, more than 60 percent of fatal crashes were blamed on alcohol. By 2015, that had dipped to 29 percent. The number of deaths per mile traveled in the United States has dropped by almost two-thirds since 1975, although other safety improvements had something to do with that. But Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimates that alcohol related traffic deaths have fallen from about 25,000 per year in 1980 to 10,000 or less—even with more cars on the road, driving more miles.

Restaurant food and alcohol sales are up more than 6½ times over that period, by the way. So it’s hard to argue that the 0.08 percent standard had a negative effect, and it seems unlikely that the 0.05 percent standard will stop people from going out.

Fewer Accidents on the Horizon

Will Utah see fewer accidents because of this change? We’re hopeful the answer is “yes,” but we won’t know for some time. Utah has seen a sharp increase in fatal crashes since 2013, possibly due to a combination of higher speed limits (80 mph on some stretches of interstate) and the general increase in distracted driving nationwide. If, as Rep. Thurston believes, this change saves sixty lives in Utah each year, it will be worth it.

From a legal perspective, the new standard might affect civil personal injury cases. It’s possible that proving a driver was operating under the influence when he caused a crash will become easier. On the other hand, with the resistance that’s been shown to the new standard, it’s also possible that there will be jurors who are sympathetic to the idea that a person with “only” a 0.05 percent BAC is not impaired. We hope it won’t take long for everyone to recognize that this is a mistaken belief: Any amount of alcohol causes impairment.

Coming to a State near You . . . Maybe

The Utah bill passed safely (48–26 in the House, 17–12 in the Senate). Despite the outcry from some, it had strong support. Lost in the focus on Utah’s bill is that two other states have seen similar proposals this year: Bills in Washington and Hawaii are in committee, and it’s likely that other states will follow. It took more than twenty years for all fifty states to adopt 0.08 percent; there’s no telling how long 0.05 percent will take.

If you are injured because of someone else, you’re less interested in knowing their precise BAC than you are in recovering from your injuries. Is a zero BAC law somewhere in the future? No one can say. But it seems fairly clear that this is one case where lower is likely to be better.

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