Critics may complain that Utah’s toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law limits individual liberties, but the decision is “ethically justified,” according to a new paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.
“Ultimately, our analysis suggests that BAC [blood alcohol content] 0.05 laws are ethically desirable because they are likely to prevent substantial harm with minimal restrictions,” wrote Stephanie Morain, assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine.
“Policymakers in other states,” she added, "should follow Utah’s lead to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths and Congress should incentivize these changes.”
On Dec. 30, 2018, a new law took hold in Utah, lowering the state’s BAC standard — used to determine when drivers are considered legally drunk — from 0.08 to 0.05 percent. Utah is the first state to approve the stricter standard.
Morain predicts other states will follow, since a lower DUI measure was one of several strategies recommended by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for reducing alcohol-impaired driving deaths.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that even a relatively small amount of alcohol — well below the 0.05 limit proposed by NASEM — hinder driving performance, Morain notes in the paper titled “Ethical Acceptability of Reducing the Legal Blood Alcohol Concentration Limit to 0.05.”
“By the time BAC of 0.05 is reached," the paper notes, “predictable effects on driving include reduced coordination, impaired ability to track moving objects, difficult steering, increased speed, greater inattention and reduced response to emergency driving situations.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a 160-pound man would need to drink about three alcoholic drinks within an hour to reach the 0.05 BAC level.
One drink is equal to 1.5 ounces of liquor, 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.
After the NASEM recommendations were published, Hawaii, New York, Washington and Delaware proposed legislation to lower the legal BAC level to 0.05. None of those states, however, has approved the lower DUI level.
Critics of the lower level say it inappropriately restricts individual freedom and criminalizes moderate and responsible social drinkers."
But Morain, whose work examines political and ethical issues concerning the scope of governmental authority in public health, said it generally is permissible to restrict individual freedom to prevent harm to others.
“A person can still drink as much as they like, just not get behind the wheel,” she said in an interview from Houston. “Our society has made it increasingly easy to find a safe ride home through ride-share applications and other resources.”
The American Beverage Institute said Morain’s paper relies on the premise that implementing 0.05 laws will significantly reduce traffic death, “an assertion that is questionable at best,” explained Jackson Shedelbower, the group’s communications director.
“Cited studies revealing this drop are deeply flawed,” because they rely on a so-called “broad deterrence effect,” he said. That means "drivers at all BAC levels, especially high ones, would be persuaded to not get behind the wheel after consuming too much alcohol after a 0.05 law is implemented. This is an argument that defies logic.”
Jackson said that rather than targeting moderate and responsible social drinkers, traffic safety policy should focus on the high-BAC and repeat drunken drivers who are responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
“The authors even admit that targeting high-BAC drivers could yield fatality reductions of about 50 percent — progress that surpasses even the most ideal scenario authors describe for 0.05.
“The problem with 0.05 laws isn’t that they’re morally unjustifiable,” he added. “The real issue is that lowering the legal limit is an ineffective policy that will only siphon limited traffic safety resources away from the real problem of high-BAC and repeat drunken drivers."
Morain said that alcohol consumption is hardly the only practice in which government could restrict individual freedom to prevent harm.
She pointed to laws that raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21. Six states — Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Maine and Massachusetts — already have adopted these “Tobacco 21” laws.
Two Utah cities also have boosted the minimum age to 21 and a bill, HB324, that increases that age statewide currently is working its way through the Utah Legislature. The vast majority of adult smokers begin before 21, and advocates hope upping the minimum age will prevent many from ever forming tobacco addictions.
Guns, Morain said, are another health issue that fits the “greater good” theory.
In February, the Florida Legislature passed a firearm and school safety bill that raised the minimum age to purchase long guns to 21. If such a restriction had been in place a year earlier, it would have prohibited the 19-year-old shooter from legally buying the rifle that was used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Morain said, as a researcher, she welcome these state-by-state changes. “It’s helpful when you have these variations," she said, "you can compare measures and see what works.”
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who sponsored Utah’s initial BAC limit bill in 2017, says the thesis of Morain’s paper cuts to the heart of another bill he is sponsoring this year, HB94, which prohibits police officers from carrying a weapon while intoxicated. The current law gives cops and exemption.
“It’s the same idea,” Thurston said. “People have a fundamental right to freedom and liberty until it starts to affect the health, safety and welfare of the people around you.”
When that happens, he said, “government should step in.”
In the case of HB94, “we don’t allow drunk people to carry weapons,” he said. “It’s not good idea.”
Neither, he says, is drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car.