It’s official: Utah has become the first state in the country that will put drivers in jail if they exceed a .05 legal blood-alcohol concentration limit. And it might not be the last.
Utah’s legislative session ended this month, and last-ditch attempts to maintain the nationally recognized 0.08 BAC limit were to no avail. As a result, the .05 law, which passed in 2017, will take effect Dec. 30 of this year.
The law has faced severe backlash since it passed. The state’s hospitality industry organized protests. The tourism sector voiced concern over the ramifications on state visitors, and my organization, the American Beverage Institute, launched a cheeky advertising campaign to highlight the law’s attack on moderate social drinkers: Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation.
Utah’s new standard targets drivers who are statistically less impaired than someone talking on a hands-free cell phone — the very definition of responsible cellphone use while driving. The lack of meaningful impairment is not a surprise, since it takes very little alcohol to reach a 0.05 BAC.
A 120 pound woman can reach that level after little more than a single drink. A 160 pound man would hit that threshold after two drinks. A jail sentence, $10,000 in fines, hiked insurance costs, and a mandatory ignition interlock is an awfully steep punishment for someone who has had one drink and is far less impaired than every taxi driver on the road.
Furthermore, a .05 legal limit distracts law enforcement from dangerous high-BAC and repeat drunk driving offenders — the ones responsible for nearly 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. When you funnel limited traffic safety funds into targeting those who enjoyed a drink with dinner, that comes at the expense of catching someone dangerously impaired at 0.18, the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash. That’s a dire misallocation of resources.
Arguments backed up by sound logic and statistics were no match for Utah’s overwhelmingly anti-alcohol legislature. This is the same state where, until last year, restaurants had to have a “Zion curtain” creating a physical barrier between bartenders mixing drinks and the customers they were serving.
Still, we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that .05 laws can only happen in a place like Utah. Conversations around .05 are becoming more common in both research corners and state capitals across the country. Utah is likely only the tip of the spear.
Consider the most recent recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences, which grabbed headlines recently with its proposal that states adopt .05 laws. And while Mothers Against Drunk Driving doesn’t endorse a .05 legal limit, organizations like the National Transportation Safety Board, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Addiction and Mental Health have long been interested in seeing current limits lowered.
Although Utah is the only state to have passed .05 into law thus far, several other states are considering the idea — including Washington, Hawaii, and New York. Delaware became the most recent state to introduce .05 legislation earlier this month. You can see why it’s an attractive proposition for a politician. After all, everyone is in favor of cracking down on drunk drivers.
But lawmakers hoping to raise their profiles by conflating .05 laws with being tough on drunk driving might find it’s a harder sell than they anticipated. Consumers know they’re not drunk after one drink. They will recoil at the notion of such behavior being labeled criminal and worthy of jail time. Even in Utah, nearly 50 percent of residents opposed the .05 law after it was passed.
So, before too many other states jump on the .05 bandwagon, they should consider this: The data show that targeting moderate and responsible social drinkers with laws that redefine “drunk” to mean “any alcohol” won’t save lives. To make the roads safer, our laws should focus on the dangerous drunk drivers who actually put lives at risk.
Hopefully, Utah will be the first and the last state that fails to make this critical distinction.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.