When I testified last month in front of the Interim Transportation Committee about the unintended consequences of Utah’s new .05 BAC arrest law, I brought with me a large bar chart showing the relative crash risks for certain kinds of driving impairments based on government and university data.
A driver is 13 times more likely to crash if he is speeding, five times more likely if he is on a hands-free cell phone and three times more likely if he’s over the age of 65. A driver is more impaired in each of these situations than at .05 BAC — the level at which Utah legislators recently voted to arrest someone.
During the back-and-forth with committee members, Rep. Lynn Hemmingway referred to the chart and made the point that while he was over the age of 65, he was still an excellent driver. I responded by saying that I agreed with him, it was his colleagues who thought he should be in jail.
Everyone laughed. It was a light moment during a long and somewhat contentious discussion.
But legislators were less amused when we, the American Beverage Institute, engaged the same theme in a full-page advertisement last week in The Salt Lake Tribune, using the photos of those legislators over 65 who voted for the .05 law under a headline that asked, rhetorically, if they were “Too Impaired to Drive?”
Some legislators took to social media to condemn the ad and claimed it was an attack on senior citizens. Several seasoned legislators went further and offered quotes to the press about what good drivers they are. Rep. Steve Handy even took a TV camera on a ride-along in his car to demonstrate just how capable he was behind the wheel.
But of course this only further demonstrates our point. Obviously, one is capable of driving safely over the age of 65 — just as one is with the lesser impairment of a .05 BAC. We’re not attacking the rights or ability of seniors to get behind the wheel (and anyone who claims we are is willfully misreading our advertisement). We’re attacking the poor logic used by Utah legislators to pass a destructive law.
Utah lawmakers leaned heavily on the notion that even a small amount of impairment is dangerous as the rationale for the new .05 law that jails someone for little more than one drink and brings nearly $10,000 of fines, fees and penalties. If elected officials think it is fair and wise to ruin someone’s life for an impairment level that is statistically less meaningful than they themselves present on the road every day, it is justifiable to make the public aware of that fact.
And of course, it’s not just legislators over 65. Do you think legislators talk on their Bluetooth when they drive? Of course they do. And why wouldn’t they? It’s completely legal to do so, despite being far more impairing than driving at the federal legal limit of .08 BAC.
It’s clear that many Utah legislators are more comfortable taking umbrage than responsibility. It suits them to change the conversation away from the fact that they voted for a law that defies both common sense as well as the best interests of the state.
If traffic safety is truly their guiding principal then legislators should withdraw their support for the .05 law (as Rep. Handy recently did) and throw it behind an effort to increase enforcement of existing ignition interlock laws. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Utah has the second worst compliance rate among DUI offenders ordered to install an ignition interlock. Doesn’t it make more sense to address this gaping hole in Utah’s enforcement against legitimately drunk drivers than to lower BAC limits to make criminals out of people who are less impaired than if they were talking on a hands-free cell phone?
When elected officials vote for an extreme change in the law — putting them out of step with every other state in the country — with very little opportunity for public discourse, they shouldn’t be surprised when they’re held accountable for those votes. The majority of Utahns oppose the .05 law and over 15,000 people have signed a petition calling for its repeal.
If some in the state want to be offended by an ad from a group in Washington that simply puts government research on impairment in context, fine. But, remember, passing an unjust law without the backing of research or public opinion is the real offense here.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.