Gehrke: Legislators say Utah’s new 0.05 DUI law will save lives, but the data doesn’t back that up

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

A driver in a 2015 Subaru Impreza was making a left turn at the tricky intersection of 2100 South and Highland Drive in Sugar House a little before midnight in July 2017 when his car collided with a man on a scooter going through the light.

As is generally the case, the scooter lost. The driver, who was wearing a helmet, died.

A blood test showed the 27-year-old man driving the Subaru had a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent.

If this same crash happens Sunday, after Utah’s harshest-in-the-nation DUI law takes effect, the driver might also be facing a charge of automobile homicide and five years in prison.

Proponents of the new law argued lowering the legal blood alcohol level to 0.05 would save lives.

But really, it’s hard to see how that would be the case.

The crash in Sugar House was the only fatal accident in 2017 where a Utah driver’s blood-alcohol level was between 0.05 and 0.079, according to an analysis of detailed reports from across the state recently released by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

It comes as no surprise. Year after year, the data clearly shows the same thing: Crashes involving drivers in that range are exceptionally rare.

From 2001 to the latest data for 2017, there have been just 35 fatal crashes involving drivers with a blood-alcohol level above 0.05 and below the current legal limit of 0.08. That’s barely two a year and just seven out of every 1,000 fatal crashes in Utah over the period.

And often, those crashes involve factors unrelated to alcohol, such as drugs, distractions, excessive speed. In fact, in two-thirds of those fatal crashes other factors are involved.

The 41-year-old victim in the Sugar House crash last year, for example, was driving on a suspended license and tested positive for methamphetamine, codeine and morphine, records show.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the 2011 crash caused by Christopher Robert Youngblood whose nitrous oxide-boosted sports car hit 90 mph in a 45 mph zone before it veered off the road, went airborne, and hit a wall, then a fence before smashing into a Kearns home killing both passengers. Youngblood had a blood alcohol level of 0.07 and tested positive for marijuana.

Ten of the 35 cases involved drivers who tested positive for methamphetamine. Seven involved minors who violated Utah’s not-a-drop law. Nine cases involved a driver traveling at least 20 mph over the speed limit.

Last year alone there were 13 Utahns killed in crashes caused by drivers using cellphones.

It seems unlikely that these sorts of drivers will suddenly change their reckless, illegal behavior. But legislators and federal officials are promising up to a 10 percent reduction in auto-related fatalities and up to 1,500 lives saved if the rest of the nation adopts the same stringent standard.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe there will be a deterrent factor. I hope there is. But I doubt it.

That’s because the danger on the roads isn’t from the driver who has had two glasses of wine with dinner. More than 100 of the 176 fatal alcohol-related crashes in Utah over the past five years — nearly 60 percent — were caused by drivers whose blood-alcohol level was 0.17 percent or higher.

For non-drinkers out there, that is really, really drunk. It’s more than twice the legal limit, at a point where individuals are staggering, slurring their speech and oftentimes vomiting — and then getting behind the wheel. Those people clearly don’t care about the DUI law or anyone else’s safety.

The people who are going to be impacted by the new law are going to be occasional drinkers now forced to navigate an impossible system, and here’s why: A year ago The Salt Lake Tribune tried to test the new 0.05 limit, and recently we collaborated to recreate it with our partners at FOX 13. The results were the same. It’s impossible to judge when someone is at 0.05.

That goes for drivers, but it also goes for trained police officers who now will be forced to make impossible judgment calls about an individual’s sobriety. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I get nervous when law enforcement is expected to enforce highly subjective standards and apply them equally — and I’m a white male.

If it can’t be equitably enforced — or enforced really at all — then this is nothing more than a message bill. If the Legislature’s message is “Don’t drive if you’ve had a drink,” then lawmakers should have made the legal limit 0.00. Not a drop. At least that would have been honest about the intent, established a clear-cut limit for drivers and police and would have been a much stronger deterrent.

Instead of zero tolerance to save all lives, they passed a bill with some tolerance that might, or might not, save some lives.

In the process, nearly 1,000 Utahns will be arrested for DUIs next year, according to forecasts from the Legislature’s budget office. That’s a thousand people who will lose their licenses and possibly their jobs, pay huge fines, and suffer steep consequences so the Legislature can haphazardly send a message.

“It’s the criminal defense attorney full employment act,” defense lawyer Clayton Simms told me. “There simply are going to be so many more DUIs and they’re going to be the ones where people aren’t really impaired and aren’t endangering the public.”

He’s right, of course. But logic and data and enforceability don’t matter when the Utah Legislature passes alcohol laws, and on Sunday — the day before New Year’s Eve, the busiest DUI enforcement night of the year — this new law will take effect.

Until then, to paraphrase the old joke: Eat, drink and be merry — then call a Lyft — for tomorrow you may be in Utah.