Utah has become the first state in the country to officially lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from 0.08 to 0.05. Supporters will celebrate the change as a victory for road safety. But the reality is not that simple.
It’s easy to comprehend why Utah is the first and only state thus far to make the jump to 0.05. Many Utahns choose to abstain from alcohol altogether for religious reasons and, therefore, may view the idea as sensible. After all, how are they to understand the effects of alcohol if they’ve never experienced it?
But in this case, ignorance is not bliss.
Implementing 0.05 without fully understanding the issue will have major repercussions. Not only will responsible consumers be targeted with major legal sanctions, but intended traffic safety benefits of the policy will not pan out as expected.
According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths involve someone with a 0.15 BAC or above — that’s a BAC level at least three times higher than the Utah limit. In contrast, fewer than 3 percent of traffic fatalities involve someone between .05 and the current limit elsewhere in the country. These BACs are so low, it’s unlikely alcohol was even the primary contributor to these incidents.
This isn’t a surprise considering it only takes slightly over a single drink for a 120-pound woman to reach 0.05, a level at which meaningful impairment has yet to begin.
A driver talking on a hands-free cell phone — what society deems to be responsible cellphone use — is more impaired than someone at 0.05.
Moreover, federal surveys indicate that simply being over the age of 65 could be considered a greater liability than someone driving at 0.05. Is anyone advocating for DWO — or driving while old — laws? Of course not!
It’s clear where the drunk driving problem lies, and it isn’t within the newly targeted BAC interval of 0.05 and 0.079. Focusing limited traffic safety resources on this area will, instead, only divert attention away from the true problem of high-BAC and repeat drunk drivers.
Although Utah’s fate is already sealed, it’s clear there is an active effort to transplant the successful passage of .05 in Utah to other states. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — a leading national advocate for lowering the legal limit — recently hosted a webinar with state influencers to sketch out a blueprint of how to get it done.
The online event not only featured the lawmakers responsible for the 0.05 law in Utah, but other advocacy groups and activists who are eager to lend a helping hand to states attempting to pass 0.05 legislation in 2019.
Lawmakers in a number of state legislatures — including Washington, Hawaii, Delaware and New York — have already proposed 0.05 legislation within the past couple years. Renewed support from the NTSB and other 0.05 sympathizers will likely induce the reintroduction of these bills and generate new ones elsewhere.
The war on moderate drinking is ramping up, and lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.05 is the legislative centerpiece of the crusade.
Supporters of the new movement are hoping Utah’s implementation will set off a domino effect in states across the country, but hopefully the idea that is only “tough on drunk driving” in sentiment, but not in practice, can be contained.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute, a trade group that lobbies on alcohol-related issues on behalf of the restaurant industry.