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Utah needs 0.05 rule because people think ‘it’s OK to drink and drive as long as you’re not buzzed’

First Published      Last Updated Jun 12 2017 07:40 am


Amid criticism, sponsor of bill lowering state’s blood-alcohol content limit says stricter standard needed to say: “If you drink, don’t drive.”

Some lawmakers might get defensive or retreat after months of angry telephone calls, emails and negative newspaper advertisements.

Yet, Rep. Norm Thurston, the Provo Republican responsible for Utah's strict new drunken-driving law, remains calm and unflappable in the storm.

The Utah Legislature approved House Bill 155, and Gov. Gary Herbert signed it. But as the bill sponsor, Thurston has taken the brunt of the criticism for the controversial new law that lowers the state's blood-alcohol content limit for a DUI from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Utah is the first state in the country to adopt the stricter standard, although lawmakers in Washington and Hawaii have proposed similar measures.




"For all the grief that I have gotten, I would have been happy to be fourth or fifth," Thurston said during a recent interview. And because the Utah law doesn't take effect until Dec. 30, 2018, "there's still an opportunity for someone to beat us to the table."

Despite the backlash, Thurston hasn't wavered from his original reason for the proposing the law.

"The current [0.08 BAC] limit suggested to people that it's OK to drink and drive as long as you're not buzzed," he said. "I wanted to send a more clear message — if you drink, don't drive."

During the next year and half, critics will be able to discuss the unintended consequences of the law and point out needed changes. Those discussions begin June 21, when the Legislature's Transpiration Interim Committee is expected to hear ways to address any consequences.

One of the most vocal critics of the law has been the American Beverage Institute, a lobbying organization "dedicated to the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages." It has placed full-page ads in Idaho and Nevada newspapers under the headline: "Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation" and currently is distributing a petition to repeal the law.

The Utah Hospitality Association, a lobbying group for bars, has followed its lead and recently started an online fundraising campaign to help pay for lobbying efforts with hopes of repealing, or at least lessening, the penalties for those for those arrested with the lower blood alcohol content.

During a recent interview, Thurston gave his response to some of the most common complaints involving the four R's — religion, research, resources and responsibility.

Religion • It's no secret that alcohol policy in Utah is heavily influenced by the Mormon church.

But in this case, Thurston insists, it was not a factor. "Not once [during the process] did I hear from a church lobbyist," he said. Although, "they did call me after the session to say congratulations." Thurston said the tone wasn't boastful, rather it acknowledged his work on an important social issue.

Thurston, a Mormon, says he believes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stayed at arm's length because he always presented it as a public safety issue, not alcohol policy.

"During the session, people told me I was beating up on alcohol too much," he said. "I don't think this is beating up on alcohol, this is beating up on drunk drivers."

Research • Critics have complained that the law isn't supported by statistics.

But Thurston is the director of the state Office of Health Care Statistics and a self-described numbers and research guy. "I understand methodology and read through papers and publications and try to find the best articles and research," he said. He put those skills to work when researching HB155. His legislative website normthurston.com/dui has a list of nearly a dozen studies that support lowering the BAC limit. The studies come from a range of groups — from conservative nonprofits such as the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation to the more mainstream National Institutes of Health.

Resources • The American Beverage Institute has argued that lowering the legal limit will distract Utah law enforcement officials from "pursuing those who actually kill people on the road, while making criminals out of our friends and neighbors."

Thurston disagrees: "Procedurally, it won't change anything. Officers are still going to patrol problem areas and be out on the streets watching for moving violations and driving patterns, like failing to signal or your taillight is out," he said. "The reasons to stop you aren't changing."

Responsibility • Restaurants and bars worry that it people will stop going out.

Thurston doesn't believe that will happen, either. "What we will see is people making better decisions about how they are going to get home," he said.

Although he doesn't drink alcohol, Thurston said he isn't opposed to others imbibing.

"What I do care about is that you plan ahead and know how you are going to get home," he said. "That's why [this law] works. Before they drink, people will have to make a plan. Decide who will be the designated driver. Get an Uber, get your Mormon neighbors to come along. Whatever works."

kathys@sltrib.com

 

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