On New Year’s Eve, as people across the country raise a glass or two to toast the end of one year and the beginning of another, residents of Utah likely will have to decline that last drink if they want to drive home afterward.
The state plans to impose the country’s strictest limit for alcohol consumption before driving, making the new blood-alcohol limit .05, down from the .08 standard nationwide. The measure — slated to take effect Dec. 30 — has prompted some criticism and spurred new training for law enforcement officials, but if it helps reduce drunk-driving deaths, other states could take notice.
“I don’t anticipate other states immediately following,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. But, he said, “if it turns out this has been successful and is having an impact on drunk driving, it’s certainly possible that other states will follow.”
The shift in Utah — the first state to lower its limit below .08 — comes as deaths from drunken driving remain a serious danger nationwide. While down significantly during the past three decades amid aggressive enforcement of drunken driving laws, alcohol-impaired drivers were involved in nearly one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities last year.
More than 37,000 people were killed in crashes in 2017, and more than 10,000 of them — about 29 percent — died in crashes involving drivers impaired by alcohol, defined as those with blood-alcohol concentrations of .08 or higher, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In Utah, about 19 percent of traffic deaths involved alcohol-impaired drivers, the lowest figure of any state.
Utah has long had restrictions on alcohol, including limits on how strong beer can be and prohibitions against bringing alcohol in from other states, but officials say drinking and driving remains an ongoing problem there.
“Despite decades of public campaigns and other efforts to discourage driving after drinking, survey and observational data show that many people continue to do so,” the Utah Department of Public Safety said in a statement addressing the new law. “Over the last five years, there were 54,402 arrests for DUI in Utah, which represents an average of 29.8 per day.”
The public safety department said that law enforcement agencies in the state had to undergo refresher training on field sobriety tests. The bill taking effect this month states that a person cannot operate or be in physical control of a vehicle if a test shows that they have “a blood or breath alcohol concentration” of 0.05 or greater. It also states that a person who has that alcohol amount and “operates a motor vehicle in a negligent manner causing the death of another” will have committed an automobile homicide, a felony.
Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed the new law last year, noting that while he had some issues with the measure, it would “save lives, therefore it is good public policy.”
The .08 standard nationwide was set in a bill signed by President Clinton in 2000, though the exact laws and penalties often vary, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Most states and the District also have harsher penalties for drivers with particularly high blood-alcohol measurements, although again, the specifics depend on the state.
Federal authorities have long pushed for tougher drunk-driving laws than the .08 standard. The National Transportation Safety Board argued in 2013 for dropping that figure to .05, saying that research showed drivers above that level “are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured.”
The American Beverage Institute — a restaurant trade association that lobbies for the industry and has opposed lowering the blood alcohol level — once called that 2013 proposal “terrible.” It also decried the new Utah measure.
“I have no doubt that proponents of .05 laws are well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t necessarily yield good public policy,” Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the institute, said in a statement this week.
Shedelbower described the new measure as “targeting moderate and responsible drinkers” rather than people with much higher blood-alcohol levels “and repeat drunk driving offenders responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.”
Federal statistics link deadly accidents with greater alcohol consumption. The NHTSA has said that while .08 is considered impaired, “the large majority of drivers in fatal crashes with any measurable alcohol had levels far higher.” Adkins, who said his group is monitoring the Utah law to see what impact it has, said that to combat drunken driving, “we need to reduce the high alcohol offenders.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a 160-pound man would reach a .05 blood alcohol content level — and have a reduced ability to track moving objects or steer — after having about three drinks in an hour. The CDC describes a standard drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or a shot of liquor, though it notes that a person’s specific reaction to alcohol can vary depending on their age, physical condition, weight and other factors.
To reach a .08, that 160-pound man would have to have about four alcoholic drinks in an hour, which would then impair their perception, reduce their ability to process things like signals and hinder their concentration, the CDC says.
Other research looking at alcohol consumption has concluded that “virtually all drivers are impaired regarding at least some driving performance measures” once they reach .05, adding that this “is not typically reached with a couple of beers after work or with a glass of wine or two with dinner.”