Study finds drop in DUI deaths after Utah changed law — but there’s a catch

Fatalities from alcohol-related accidents dropped when blood alcohol limit was lowered, but figures show the rate went back up in 2020 and 2021.

(Utah Department of Public Safety) A black Cadillac Escalade is photographed after crashing off of Interstate 70 in Sevier County on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. The driver was later charged with vehicular homicide and two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol; two of the driver's children were ejected from the vehicle, and one died at the scene, the Utah Department of Public Safety reported.

A federal study suggests Utah’s 2018 move to drop the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers, from 0.08 to 0.05, led to fewer accidents and deaths on the state’s highways in the law’s first year — but more recent figures indicate the benefit may have been short-lived.

The study, released Friday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, collected information from Utah agencies and its own database. The study found that in 2019 — the year after the lower blood alcohol limit law took effect, on Dec. 30, 2018 — Utah saw a 19.8% reduction in the fatal crash rate (the number of crashes resulting in someone’s death), and an 18.3% reduction in the fatality rate (the number of people killed in crashes).

During the same period, the study said, Utah’s neighbors — Arizona, Colorado and Nevada — “did not show the same levels of improvement in fatal crash and fatality rates.” In the rest of the United States, in 2019, the fatal crash rate went down 5.6%, and the fatality rate dropped 5.9%.

The study noted that Utah’s fatal crash and fatality rates also dropped in the time between HB155 being signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 23, 2017, and the law taking effect 21 months later.

The study’s authors summarized that the law “had demonstrably positive impacts on highway safety in Utah.”

Rep. Norm Thurston, the Provo Republican who sponsored HB155, said Monday that the study bolsters his arguments for lowering the blood alcohol limit.

“On the ground you could feel it, talking to law enforcement, talking to other people, and you could feel that this was actually working,” Thurston said. “But then you don’t really know until you see the data. It was very, very comforting to know that what we thought was happening was really happening.”

According to data from the Utah Department of Public Safety, there was indeed a drop in fatalities in alcohol-related accidents, from 67 in 2018 to 35 in 2019. Likewise, the number of fatal crashes also dropped, from 56 in 2018 to 34 in 2019.

The trend has not continued, though. In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people killed in alcohol-related accidents in Utah rose to 54, and the number of fatal accidents rose to 51. Last year, the numbers rose again – 77 fatalities, and 66 fatal crashes, all alcohol-related.

A Utah Department of Transportation report in March 2021 noted that the number of cars on the road decreased by 13% in 2020, compared with 2019 — but fatalities on surface streets, as opposed to highways, rose 36%.

Jason Mettmann, communications manager for Utah DPS, said that drivers nationwide increased unsafe behaviors — including, but not only, driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs — in 2020 and 2021.

“Utah had a decrease in our seat belt use rate over the pandemic years,” Mettmann said. “All of the deadly driving behaviors showed an increase during those times, so we were on the downslope after the law changed, but then we saw an increase once the pandemic hit. Every state in the nation experienced some sort of increase in those behaviors.”

Mettmann said there is good news from the study, from focus groups Utah DPS surveyed after the lower blood alcohol limit took effect. According to those surveys of drinkers, 22% said they had changed their behavior in response to the law — such as finding alternative ways to get home, rather than getting behind the wheel, after a night’s drinking.

That, Thurston said, is the reason for changing the law in the first place.

“The most important thing we wanted to accomplish was to change people’s behavior,” Thurston said, “specifically we wanted to change the behavior of driving after drinking. That’s what the study showed us, that it’s possible to change people’s behavior.”

Utah was the first state in the union to lower the blood alcohol limit to 0.05 — just as it was the first, back in 1983, to lower the limit from 0.10 to 0.08. The rest of the country followed Utah’s lead then, and NHTSA said in Friday’s release that the agency intends to use the study to push for nationwide adoption of the 0.05 limit.

“Utah typically has one of the lowest rates of impaired driving fatalities in the nation, but this study shows that all states have room for improvement,” Dr. Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said in a statement. “As our study shows, changing the law to .05% in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired. NHTSA conducts research on the effectiveness of countermeasures to improve safety on the nation’s roads, and this study will be a useful tool for other states considering a move to .05%.”