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Op-ed: Problems of lower alcohol limit are many, and the advantages are non-existent

First Published      Last Updated Mar 10 2017 06:09 pm

Pending Gov. Gary Herbert's signature, Utah will become the first state in the nation to lower its legal drunk driving threshold from 0.08 to 0.05 blood-alcohol content.

Unfortunately, the new law is unlikely to save lives. However, it is sure to ruin some.

A 120-pound woman can reach the 0.05 limit after little more than a single drink. Under the new law, if she drives, she can be arrested and subject to jail time, social stigma, thousands in fines and legal fees, increased insurance costs and the installation of an ignition interlock.

Harsh consequences would be permissible if this woman were impaired at 0.05, but she isn't. A University of Utah driving simulation study showed that a driver is more impaired talking on a hands-free cellphone than she is at the current 0.08 legal limit. Consider how often you talk on your phone in the car. Now consider that someone far less impaired than you are while talking on your Bluetooth will be arrested for DUI. It defies logic and common sense.




Then there's the damage this new law will inflict on the tourism and hospitality industries. Why would people choose a ski vacation in Utah over Colorado or Montana if they fear getting arrested for having a drink after a day on the mountain before heading back to their hotel? Utah already has a reputation for strict and quirky alcohol laws, but this new law will put it even further outside the mainstream.

As for restaurants, a lower legal limit introduces a whole new set of problems. There's the obvious issue of revenue. If most patrons are afraid to have anything to drink if they're going to be driving, then not only won't they order a drink with dinner, but eventually they may simply decide it's better to forgo a night out altogether.

But that isn't all. There's also the issue of alcohol server education programs. Restaurants have programs to train servers on responsible alcohol service. They are taught to spot patrons who are legally drunk to keep them from getting out on the roads. How is a server supposed to identify someone who is now legally drunk at 0.05, but shows no signs of impairment?

Bartenders and servers won't be the only people finding it hard to identify impairment. Highway patrol members who look for drunk driving indicators and administer sobriety field tests will also struggle with the new mandate. At 0.05, a driver won't exhibit the tell-tale behavior of drunk-driver-like weaving between lanes or making illegal turns. And he or she will have no trouble standing on one leg (assuming it's something he or she knows how to do in general) and walking in a straight line.

The damage to Utah's hospitality and tourism industries wouldn't be such a bitter pill to swallow if this law were going to have a serious impact on saving lives, but there's no evidence that will be the case. Most drunk-driving fatalities in Utah — a full 77 percent — occur at levels above 0.15 BAC. The average BAC of someone in an alcohol related fatal crash is 0.20 — four times the new legal limit. Only around 1 percent of traffic fatalities happen between 0.05 and 0.08. If you want to save lives, you have to target the real problem.

Of course Utah legislators want to save lives — we all do — but they missed an opportunity to truly target the drunk-driving problem by considering legislation that targets the hardcore drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities in Utah. Instead, they passed feel-good legislation that will criminalize perfectly responsible behavior while having no impact on extreme drinkers.

It's for this reason that the largest anti-DUI advocacy group in the country, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, declined to support the legislation.

It's clear that the state's unique relationship with alcohol played a significant role in passing this law so quickly and decisively. The National Transportation Safety Board—the main advocate for 0.05 laws—saw an easier legislative path in Utah than in other states.

Supporters of the legislation said it was time for Utah to "lead" on the issue of drunk driving. But when a law is as poorly thought out as 0.05 is, it's unlikely other states will follow.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.

 

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