Easing the restrictions in Utah liquor laws hasn't resulted in more drunk driving fatalities or crashes on the state's highways and roads, as key lawmakers over the years have predicted it would .
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who drafts most liquor bills, has always been reluctant to increase liquor permits for club and restaurants, citing concern that fatalities from alcohol-impaired driving would increase and knock the state out of its long-held position of having the lowest number of such deaths nationwide.
In fact, Valentine told colleagues during a recent interim legislative session he was worried that landmark legislation in 2009 that did away with the state's one-of-a-kind private club memberships may be related to a spike in drunk driving crashes and highway fatalities.
But the traffic figures Valentine cited were for 2011. Preliminary numbers for 2012 show fatalities have decreased substantially, which would again make Utah highways the safest in the nation in terms of drunk-driving fatalities.
"That's good news enforcement has certainly helped," said Valentine on learning of the preliminary numbers complied by the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The number of deaths involving an alcohol-impaired driver increased 56 percent in 2011 from the year before, to 39 deaths. But that number decreased to 16 deaths for 2012.
Although Utah typically has the lowest number of highway deaths involving a drunk drivers, the state has slipped before.
Utah was third in the nation in the number of fatalities in 2004 when 79 deaths were attributed to alcohol-impaired driving. That same year, private club memberships were required for imbibers to get a drink in a bar. And unlike today, nine years ago diners could watch a server opening a can of beer, the state had no distilleries and flavored malt beverages were sold in hundreds of grocery stores.
Valentine acknowledged that highway fatalities fluctuate year to year. He's also not certain if there's a direct correlation between drunk-driving and abolishing club memberships at bars and fine dining restaurants, "but this is still something that I want to watch closely," he said.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said it's important that policy makers clearly understand the data on drunk driving before proposing legislation. Earlier this year, Froerer sponsored a bill that would have created a separate liquor license category for fine-dining restaurants, establishments that current state law puts in the same class with public bars, for which permits are scarce. That legislation failed over concerns of underage drinking and drunk driving.
"Drunk drivers are coming out of bars, they're picking up beer at convenience stores or booze at liquor stores, they're not driving drunk after coming out of a dining club where food is served," Froerer said. "It's too easy to ignore the core issue, which is problem drinkers and repeat offenders. Let's talk about penalties, counseling and resources to get these people help."
When the Utah Legislature did away with the state's private club law in 2009, the move was called the most sweeping liquor-reform legislation in four decades. At the time, Art Brown director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Utah chapter, warned the change would lead to more drunks on the road and more accidents.
"We are moving from private clubs to open bars," Brown said at the time, "and they're a major source of DUIs around the country."
Brown stands behind his prior statement.
"We only arrest only one percent of the drunk driving trips on the road," he said in an interview. "It's the undetected driver that gets involved in crashes and fatalities. There are so many variables that affect drunk driving, from enforcement to laws, public perception and the availability of alcohol, that there's no way to isolate a single factor as the cause of drunk driving."
Each year nearly 10,000 people die in traffic accidents linked to alcohol, according to the National Transportation Safety Administration.
In Utah, alcohol-impaired driver crashes are 5.4 times more likely to be fatal than other crashes. Time also is a factor in drunk-driving crashes. While 3 percent of all crashes involve an alcohol impaired driver, 16 percent of the crashes, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., are related to a drunk driver.
The number of drunk-driver crashes, however, has been decreasing in Utah. In 2007, there were more than 2,700 alcohol-impaired driver crashes resulting in 1,900 injuries, down to 1,662 crashes in 2011 and more than 1,000 injuries.
Brown said it's important that people don't drink when they drive, "period. You get impaired after the first drink."
Drunk driving in Utah
Total crashes • 3 percent of all crashes involved a drunk driver
Drivers age 21-24 • Had the highest rates of alcohol-impaired crashes
Offenders • 15 percent of drunk drivers in fatal crashes had a previous DUI
Highest rate • Most alcohol-impaired crashes per vehicle mile in Salt Lake, Daggett, Duchesne Counties
Lowest rate • Juab, Sevier and Millard Counties had the least rate of alcohol-impaired driver crashes
Source: Utah Department of Public Safety
Dealing with drunk drivers
Time • Stay off the road late at night or early in the morning when most alcohol-related crashes occur
Bars • Don't hang around until closing. Leave early, and you'll greatly reduce your chances of being in a car accident
Suspected drunks • Stay away from motorists driving erratically, speeding up and slowing down or weaving over different lanes
Defenses • Stay behind the drunk driver or if the car is coming at you, get as far over to your side of the road as safely possible
Report • Call 911 once the car has passed and give its license plate number, vehicle description, location and direction of travel