In 1983, Utah was the first state to lower its blood alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08 for impaired driving. It would take nearly two decades for every state to follow suit, but as they did, the nation’s rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped 10 percent. Now, Utah is pioneering the move to lower it once again.
Beginning Dec. 30 — yes, the day before New Year’s Eve — Utahns will have to be extra careful about drinking and driving. Sunday, the state’s blood alcohol content limit will drop from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, marking the strictest DUI law in the country.
To give you an idea of the difference in consumption, for a man weighing 180 pounds, it takes about four drinks to reach a BAC of 0.08 percent. But to reach .05, it’s about half as many drinks, and can be even fewer for women.
The current limit, of .08 is “a significant amount of drinking,” for a lot of people, says Utah state Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican.
Thurston sponsored the bill to lower the limit in 2017 at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been urging states to lower DUI limits to 0.05 since 2013.
Thurston says he believes the new limit will save lives because it sends a strict message to anyone who has been drinking not to get behind the wheel.
“You would think that we’re already there as a society,” but Thurston says he meets “a lot” of people who say they think it’s safe to drink and drive, “just a little bit.”
Critics slammed the Republican, a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for running the bill. The church urges its members not to consume alcohol and many accused him, as a Mormon, of trying to legislate drinkers and non-Mormons.
The American Beverage Institute, an alcohol trade organization, has been a vocal critic of the law. Spokesman Jackson Shedelbower says he doesn’t believe the change will save lives. The lower limit targets social, moderate drinkers, not “legitimately drunk drivers,” he says.
“Nearly 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities in this country are caused by someone with … a BAC of 0.15 and above,” Shedlbower says, three times the new limit in Utah.
So, will drunk driving arrests in Utah increase starting Dec. 30? Probably not, says Sgt. Nick Street with the Utah Highway Patrol.
“Troopers and officers throughout the state should already be arresting based on impairment, not based on a per se limit, and that standard is not going to change,” he says.
Street says he believes the law has already changed drivers’ behaviors, even though it hasn’t taken effect yet.
“I think people are making better decisions on the front end of a night,” by using ride-hailing apps or choosing designated drivers.