Beginning Sunday, the legal blood alcohol concentration for driving in the state will go from .08 percent to .05 percent. The Legislature passed the law in 2017 but delayed its implementation until the end of this year.
“It’s kind of been a long time coming,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who carried the legislation.
Thurston said he proposed the lower limit after sayings such as “Buzzed driving is drunk driving” caught his attention.
“That message implies that if you’re not buzzed, even though you’ve been drinking, it’s OK to drive, which isn’t the message we really need to send,” he said. “We know that impairment begins with the very first drink and the message ought to be if you drink, don’t drive.”
Utah Highway Patrol Col. Mike Rapich said it will be business as usual Sunday and state troopers won’t change how they determine whether drivers are impaired.
“We understand there is a fair amount of trepidation regarding this change,” he said in Facebook post. “We hope you understand a driver’s blood-alcohol concentration is just a single component considered when assessing that a driver’s potential impairment and their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.”
A group, including Salt Lake City police, Utah Transit Authority, Visit Salt Lake, Utah Restaurant Association, Budweiser and Lyft, launched an effort earlier this month called Enjoy Utah Responsibly to bring awareness to the change as the winter season kicks into high gear.
“I don’t think there’s going to be an impact on tourism,” Thurston said.
The American Beverage Institute has been the most vocal opponent of the law since the state started debating it, mounting several campaigns urging lawmakers to repeal the measure. It ran ads in Colorado, Idaho and Nevada discouraging tourists from traveling to Utah and questioned whether the governor and Utah legislators over age 65 are too old to drive.
“I have no doubt that proponents of .05 laws are well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t necessarily yield good public policy,” said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the organization based in Washington, D.C.
It’s easy to see why Utah was the first state to adopt the lower standard, he said.
“Many Utahns entirely refrain from alcohol consumption for religious reasons and, therefore, lack a full understanding of its effects — notably that impairment at .05 BAC, or after one or two drinks, is not meaningful and shouldn’t become the basis of major legal consequences,” Shedelbower said.
Utah already has one of the lowest drunken driving rates in the country.
Alcohol-related fatal crashes in the state have remained about the same for the past decade. There were 36 deaths in 2017, identical to the year before and just above the 10-year average of 33 per year.
The Utah Department of Public Safety intends to study the effect of the new law by trying to measure the number of people who are drinking and driving, Thurston said. He said he thinks that will go down and consequently so will alcohol-related crashes, injuries and deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it takes about three alcoholic drinks in an hour for a 160-pound man to reach .05 BAC. Effects on driving at that level might include reduced coordination, ability to track moving objects and response to emergency driving situations and difficulty steering, the CDC says.
The beverage institute argues that the law target moderate and responsible drinkers but should be focused on high BAC levels and repeat drunken drivers.
“That way, the roads actually become safer and those who enjoy a drink or two over dinner before driving are not labeled criminals. Everyone wants to save lives, but lowering the legal limit to .05 is not the answer,” Shedelbower said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has urged all states to pass the .05 law since 2013. Colorado and New York have the lower limit, but have tiered penalties and consider it a lesser offense at that level.
Thurston said he has talked to officials in a dozen states that have interest in the Utah law, including Hawaii and Washington, where lawmakers have turned down .05 proposals.
When Utah passed the .08 law in 1983, the rest of the nation eventually followed suit, ultimately saving 24,686 lives through 2014, according to the NTSB. Passing the law nationwide would save 1,790 lives a year, the NTSB said.
Shedelbower said he hopes other states will take into account nuances around traffic safety and consumer repercussions before “blindly following in Utah’s footsteps.”
A recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also reviewed the available scientific evidence and concluded that such a move coupled with a public media campaign could reduce driving after drinking, crashes, injuries and deaths
In 2016, the latest year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has available data, 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes, up 1.7 percent over 2015. That accounts for 28 percent of all fatal crashes that year.