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New twists offered to Utah's DUI, seat belt laws

Published January 30, 2014 4:50 pm

New approach • Perry seeks ways around old problems.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Rep. Lee Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, doesn't like it when drunken drivers use legal loopholes to escape conviction. And he also doesn't like it when other legislators keep shooting down bills to toughen seat-belt laws by contending they would interfere with personal freedom.

So Thursday, the Republican introduced bills with new twists to attack both problems.

His HB303 would reword the state's DUI law. Currently the law bans driving "under the influence" of alcohol or drugs "to a degree that renders a person incapable of safely operating a vehicle."

The trouble is, Perry said, some attorneys argue that if a person was pulled over for something besides erratic driving — such as a broken tail light — police don't really know if the driver was intoxicated to a degree that made them "incapable of safely operating a vehicle."

His bill would reword the law so that it bans driving while "impaired to the slightest degree" by alcohol or drugs.

"It would take away the argument some attorneys are using now," he said. Perry adds that Arizona has had similar wording for 15 years, and said it works well. He adds that the wording would not change the .08 blood alcohol level to be considered drunk in Utah.

"Police would still need to do field sobriety tests" and other things such as proving who was in control of a vehicle, he said.

Perry also for years has pushed bills to make it a "primary offense" to not wear a seat belt, meaning officers could pull over drivers and write tickets specifically for that offense. Currently it is a "secondary offense," meaning drivers can be cited for not buckling up only if pulled over for some other offense.

"My colleagues vote it down every year, arguing that it interferes with personal freedom," Perry said. He will again support a "primary" seat belt bill, SB128, introduced this year by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, but has decided to attack the problem another way, too.

His new HB305 would change civil laws regarding seat belts. Utah law now prohibits seat-belt or child-restraint violations as evidence in civil suits over damages in auto accidents. His bill would delete that ban.

"At some point you need to take some personal responsibility for your choices," Perry said, adding it might push more people to buckle up.

He said he is also considering introducing another bill that would make it a "primary offense" for people to drive commercial vehicles without wearing sealt belts, but may limit that to just government vehicles.

"Not wearing a seat belt is not only dangerous to the person who doesn't do it, but also to others," Perry said, noting that people without proper restraint can become "projectiles" in accidents and injure or kill others.