Do you think someone should go to jail for behavior that is far less impairing than driving talking on a hands-free cell phone? Many of Utah’s lawmakers seem to think so.
Last year, the state legislature passed a new 0.05 blood-alcohol arrest level for driving, which would subject a 120 pound woman to jail time, $10,000 in fines and penalties, hiked insurance rates and the social stigma of being labeled a drunk driver. All for consuming little more than a single drink before getting behind the wheel.
The controversial law doesn’t go into effect until December of this year and some pragmatic lawmakers are using the current legislative session to try to amend the statute. Most recently, Rep. Karen Kwan introduced legislation that would delay implementation of the lower arrest limit until 2022.
This would be a smart move. Not only does it provide time for more research on the potential impacts of the law, but it gives legislators time to reconsider some of the flawed arguments that swayed them so quickly during the initial passage in 2017.
The biggest talking point used by proponents to advance the .05 agenda is that most of Europe has already moved to a .05 legal limit. This is true. However, not only do European countries allow teenagers to drink legally (a major difference from the U.S.), but they don’t throw people in jail or hit them with massive fines for driving at .05. While punishments vary across countries, most treat driving between .05 and .08 BAC as a minor traffic infraction akin to a speeding ticket. So by charging drivers at .05 with a per se DUI, Utah’s law wouldn’t just be the harshest in the country, but among the harshest in the world.
Not only do foreign .05 laws differ from Utah’s, but the impact they’ve had on traffic safety has also been questionable. Study after study on .05 policies in Europe show that a reduction in traffic deaths cannot be attributed to lower legal limits alone. Other traffic safety laws and high-profile public awareness campaigns that were implemented in parallel with .05 make it impossible to parse the results.
Furthermore, even our nation’s premier anti-drunk driving organization doesn’t support Utah’s .05 statute. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has instead chosen to focus resources on policies that target legitimately drunk drivers through the use of in-vehicle breathalyzers, or ignition interlock devices (IID)—rather than target those drivers with a 0.05 BAC that are not meaningfully impaired.
State lawmakers should take note of their strategy if they legitimately want to make the roads safer. Utah already has an IID law that would save lives if implemented correctly, but it’s failing miserably. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Utah has the second worst IID compliance rate in the country. And another independent investigation by KSL found that 72 percent of Utah’s convicted drunk drivers never installed the device as ordered.
Shoring up funds and creating mechanisms to bolster the state’s already existing IID program should be a top priority. Not continuing to support a .05 policy that will further divert the attention of law enforcement from the high-BAC and repeat offenders responsible for nearly 70 percent of Utah’s alcohol-related fatalities. By continuing to support .05, lawmakers are essentially banning the consumption of even very small amounts of alcohol before driving and punishing moderate and responsible social drinkers with the kind of consequences typically reserved for serious criminal offenses—a move that harms the state’s economic interests and diverts resources from the other traffic safety challenges Utah faces. Thankfully, the legislature has a chance to reevaluate their position right now.
While fully repealing .05 would be a better alternative, supporting Kwan’s H.B. 345 and delaying the implementation of the lower arrest limit will give legislators ample time to reconsider the issue based on solid evidence, as well as strengthen existing traffic safety laws before considering new ones — a step that everyone can support.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.