In The News

Hospitality industry says Utah .05 percent DUI law targets wrong people, hurts tourism

By: Dennis Romboy

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s lowest-in-the-nation DUI law targets the wrong people and hurts tourism, restaurant and hospitality associations told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Mary Crafts-Homer, Visit Salt Lake chairwoman and owner of the state’s largest catering company, said the law has already impacted the state’s booming destination wedding business. All of the brides who had weddings booked called to know how it would affect them, she said.

“I don’t know how many people haven’t called me because they decided because of this law they’re going to go to Colorado,” she told the Transportation Interim Committee.

Crafts-Homer told legislators the law isn’t going after chronic drunken drivers, but targets social drinkers and creates a negative perception of the state.

“I’d take the hit economically if I thought this law was going to save lives,” she said. “But I don’t.”

Utah became the first state in the nation earlier this year to lower the legal blood alcohol content for driving to .05 percent. The committee is reviewing the law for any unintended consequences before it takes effect Dec. 30, 2018.

“People are not drunk at .05. They are sober at .05,” Sarah Longwell, executive director of the American Beverage Institute, told lawmakers. “Putting sober people in jail; that’s an unintended consequence.”

The organization based in Washington, D.C., has mounted a campaign to repeal the law, including ads in neighboring states discouraging tourists from traveling to Utah.

Though lawmakers aren’t inclined to repeal the law, some have talked about a graduated penalty system in which an impaired person testing between .05 percent and .07 percent would be charged with a lesser offense, while .08 percent would be the felony drunken driving limit.

Republican legislators on the committee defended the law as a means to save lives, while Democrats condemned it as unnecessary because police can already pull over impaired drivers at any time.

“We’re not telling people not to drink. We’re telling people that they shouldn’t drink and drive. That’s the message,” said Rep. Justin Fawson R-North Ogden.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the media attention, including the American Beverage Institute’s negative ad campaign, has already kept drunken drivers off the road. Some people, he said, believe the law already exists.

“I think this has already had a chilling effect,” he said.

Adams cited state statistics showing that two of the 102 fatalities on Utah roads through June involved intoxicated drivers, down 13 on average from the previous three years through that time.

“We need to rethink this,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, adding that she recently saw a driver eating, drinking coffee and putting on makeup. “If that’s not impaired, I don’t know what impaired is.”

Dave Morris, president of the Utah Hospitality Association and owner of four bars, said the law takes aim at people going out for dinner and a movie, golfers, the lunch crowd and vacationers.

“They’re my social drinkers. They’re my rule followers,” he told the committee, adding that drivers who are killing people have no regard for the law and don’t care about blood alcohol levels.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said critics gloss over that drivers are causing crashes and killing people at less than .08 percent. He said the law will reduce wrecks above and below that level.

“We’re giving people a reason to plan ahead because they’re going to have to think twice about it,” said Thurston, who sponsored the bill creating the law.

Kaitlin Eskelson, of the Utah Tourism Industry Association, said there have been 1,500 news articles about the new Utah law totaling $2 million in what the industry classifies as negative media attention.

“Tourism really is based on perception,” she said.