One more drink? How New Year’s revelers in Utah answer that question could put them in line to test the nation’s strictest limit for blood alcohol content.
On Dec. 30, Utah will become the first state to lower the legal standard for driving under the influence from the nationally recognized .08 to .05, a move that comes 35 years after the Beehive State was among the first to move away from a 1.0 legal limit.
Other states will be watching.
Evidence in favor of the lower threshold, first advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2013, continues to mount even as the political will for such a change wavers and the alcohol industry digs in its heels in opposition.
Four other states – New York, Washington, Hawaii and Delaware – considered legislation in the last two years to reduce the limit to .05. Only Utah, where about 60 percent of the population belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – which eschews alcohol – implemented the more stringent law.
NTSB board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr sees that as only the first step.
“I think there’s going to be a nationwide movement, because people are realizing this is a usable, effective tool that we’ve been neglecting,’’ Dinh-Zarr said. “Just by passing a .05 law, you’ll have an immediate effect on saving lives.’’
Opponents, meanwhile, argue that a slight adjustment to the BAC limit targets only casual drinkers, not the more dangerous heavy drinkers.
“In reality, .05 will do little to save lives while criminalizing what is now considered perfectly responsible behavior,” said Jackson Shedelbower, communications director for the American Beverage Institute, a trade group that represents restaurants, bars and alcohol producers. “At that very low level, impairment isn’t even meaningful.”
The case presented by advocates is compelling.
A recent meta-analysis of studies from countries around the world conducted by University of Chicago researcher James Fell and his colleague Michael Scherer concluded that a .05 BAC limit would prevent 11 percent of fatal crashes involving alcohol and save nearly 1,800 lives each year.
In 2017, 10,874 people in the U.S. died in alcohol-impaired-driving accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That figure has remained consistently in the 10,000 range – typically 30 percent of total deaths on the road – despite improvements in vehicle technology and use of seat belts that have helped decrease the total number of fatalities.
Research cited by the NTSB indicates the risk of being involved in a fatal crash increases markedly after a driver reaches or surpasses a .05 BAC, shooting up to seven times higher for drivers who register between .05 and .079 compared to those with no alcohol in their system.
Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NHTSA show driving skills start to become impaired with a BAC as low as .02 and worsen considerably from .05 on. It would take three drinks in one hour for a 160-pound man to reach .05, according to the NTSB, though other BAC charts peg the number at just two drinks. A 120-pound woman would reach .05 after one or two drinks, depending on the chart. Other variables such as speed of consumption and food intake also affect the BAC.
In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a comprehensive study that supported a .05 limit. Study co-author Tim Naimi said most developed countries have shifted to that figure or a lower one – including Australia, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Sweden and Norway – and noted there’s a large number of accidents that involve driving below the legal BAC limit.
In 2016, there were 2,017 alcohol-related fatalities in crashes where the drivers registered a BAC below .08.
“These low-BAC crash deaths are a significant issue,” Naimi said, “and there are almost as many of them as there are crash deaths above .08.”
Not everybody’s convinced of the value of a .05 limit, including the ABI. The association vehemently opposed Utah’s new limit, running full-page newspaper ads that read, “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation.’’
Shedelbower said law enforcement should go after heavier drinkers, such as those who register a BAC of .15 and above, a group that accounts for 67 percent of the alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to the NHTSA.
“We just think focusing the limited traffic-safety resources on these moderate, responsible social drinkers, people who just want to enjoy a drink or two over dinner or out with friends, is bad policy,” said Shedelbower, adding that driving while speaking on a hands-free cell phone is equally dangerous. “Lawmakers should instead be focusing on the legitimately drunk drivers.’’
Should Utah reveal a marked decrease in traffic deaths linked to alcohol, Shedelbower conceded other states are likely to follow its lead. Indeed, Utah and Oregon were the first two states to drop from a 1.0 BAC to .08 in 1983.
With inducements from the federal government, other states adopted the new standard, and, in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill that established 2004 as the latest date for states to implement .08 as law or risk losing federal highway funds.
The NTSB said that, from 1982-2014, alcohol-related fatalities on the road dwindled by 10.4 percent even though alcohol consumption remained at the same level.
“I look at the .08 policy debate and the arguments that, ‘Oh, this is going to bury the alcohol industry.’ Well, in fact, the alcohol industry is doing quite well,’’ said University of Minnesota professor Traci Toomey, an expert in alcohol-control policies. “Obviously, that did not kill their business, and I have no reason to believe the .05 BAC would.’’
Agencies like the traffic safety administration often run campaigns against drinking and driving, including an ad aimed at next year’s St. Patrick’s Day, one of the dates that typically produces the highest rates of accidents linked to drinking, along with New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
While such campaigns and the easier access to ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft may help diminish carnage on the road, a .05 law may prove more effective if it can be enacted, experts say.
“The main obstacles are the industry opposition and political will,’’ Naimi said, “and those are two formidable forces.’’
If history is an indication, the second one may bend. Toomey, who recalls her home state of Minnesota as among the last to shift from a 1.0 BAC to .08, points to policies promoting smoke-free areas as an example of a change that started small and then grew.
Does that mean the pendulum is swinging toward .05?
“It’s just starting to swing, because it’s only one state so far,’’ she said. “Some jurisdiction or area has to be the first one to do it. Once that happens, it makes it much easier for other states or countries to pass similar policies.’’