Utah lawmakers who passed the strictest drunk driving threshold in the country got an earful Wednesday from restaurant and tourism groups who warned the 0.05 percent blood alcohol limit could hurt the state’s hospitality industry.
Tourism officials warned a panel of state lawmakers that Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-dominated state that’s unfriendly to those who drink alcohol could take another hit with the stricter limit.
Officials from the restaurant and bar industry claimed that when the DUI threshold drops from 0.08 percent next year, it will target responsible people having a drink or two at dinner.
“People are not drunk at 0.05. They are sober at 0.05,” said Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a national restaurant group.
Legislators on the Transportation Interim Committee, tasked with studying the issue say they won’t repeal the law but are looking at its unintended consequences.
Earlier this year, Utah’s restaurant, hospitality and ski industries urged Gov. Gary Herbert to veto the bill, saying it would punish responsible drinkers and contribute to Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-dominated state that’s unfriendly to those who drink alcohol.
Herbert signed it, saying he thought it would save lives, but asked lawmakers to study it this summer whether it can be improved.
The Transportation Interim Committee didn’t take any action Wednesday but Rep. Norm Thurston, a Provo Republican who sponsored the new law, said he thinks the state can look at ensuring all police and state troopers enforce the law the same way. Thurston also said the state can consider clarifying the law that holds restaurants and bars liable if they serve alcohol to a person that the server “knows or should know” is intoxicated.
Proponents of the 0.05 limit, including the National Transportation Safety Board, say people start to become impaired with a first drink and shouldn’t be driving.
At a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent, a driver may have trouble steering and have a harder time coordinating, tracking moving objects and responding to emergencies, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The new law means a 160-pound man could be over the 0.05 limit after two drinks, while a 120-pound woman could exceed it after a single drink, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. However, a number of factors, including how much a person has had to eat and how fast they’re drinking, can affect their blood alcohol levels.
Longwell said legislators should instead focus on cracking down on drivers with higher blood alcohol levels, closer to 0.15 percent, who are responsible for most fatal DUIs. She said that while Utah requires those convicted of DUIs to get ignition interlocks installed on their cars, relatively few actually do.
She said Utah could instead save lives by lowering the speed limit, banning people from eating in their cars or banning cellphone use in cars.
Cara Tangaro, an attorney and president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said field sobriety tests, which include tasks like walking heel-to-toe in a line and standing on one leg, are not foolproof measures of impairment. She challenged the lawmakers to take the test themselves.
“This will actually create more business for me,” Tangaro said, “but I still think it’s a bad idea.”