Despite its 0.05 DUI law, Utah isn’t the toughest state on drunken drivers, study shows

Turns out — even with the nation’s strictest drunken driving standard — Utah isn’t the worst state in which to get busted for a DUI.

That title belongs to Minnesota, according to a new study released this week by the Utah law firm of Siegfried & Jensen.

“The interesting thing with this study,” explained Siegfried & Jensen attorney Resh Jefferies, “is that Utah did not come out number one, which I think a lot of people would have assumed.”

In the study — titled “The Toughest DUI Laws & DUI Penalties by State” — states were scored using 21 statistics, including DUI accidents, limits for blood alcohol content (BAC), fines, penalties and related legislation.

States with the highest score — of a possible 100 — were deemed the strictest on drunken driving, while states with the lowest scores were the most lenient.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Beehive State was second behind Minnesota in the 50-state ranking. Georgia was third.

Utah earned its runner-up status, thanks to a new 0.05 BAC standard — used to determine when drivers are considered legally drunk. It is the lowest drunken driving standard in the country after dropping from 0.08 on Dec. 30, 2018.

The 49 remaining states still have the 0.08 BAC level. But Minnesota is “much more punitive,” with stout penalties for those caught drinking and driving, Jefferies said In an interview on the latest episode of The Salt Lake Tribune-FOX 13 Utah “Booze News” podcast. “They use deterrents differently than Utah does."

For example, a first-time DUI citation will get a Minnesota driver a maximum of 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and a six-month license suspension.

For first-timers in Utah, the maximum penalty is a fine of $1,370 and a three-month license suspension. There is no jail time on a first offense. the study shows.

Minnesota also is tougher on second and third offenses — with a maximum of one year in jail, a $3,000 fine and a 12-month license suspension.

Utah has a more graduated system. For a second DUI offense, the maximum penalty is 10 days in jail, a $1,560 fine and a six-month license suspension. The penalties go up on a third offense to 62 days in jail, a $2,850 fine and a six-month suspension.

Despite the stiff penalties, Minnesota still has 565 DUI arrest per 100,000 drivers. Utah has 400 arrests for every 100,000 drivers — at least before the 0.05 limit kicked in.

Conversely, South Dakota — which was ranked 50th, making it the most lenient state — had 1,298 DUI arrests for every 100,000. It also had the lightest penalties of any state with no jail time or fines — just license suspensions of six, 12 and 24 months, respectively, for each subsequent DUI citation.

Siegfried & Jensen used information from numerous sources, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Governors Highway Safety Association, National Council of State Legislatures and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The National Transportation Safety Board supports a 0.05 limit, noting that numerous studies show impairment starts after one alcoholic drink and that motorists are noticeably impaired at 0.04 — the BAC limit for commercial truck drivers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Norm Thurston talks about the Utah's strict new DUI law, which lowers the blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05, which goes into effect, On Dec. 30. Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

Strict enforcement of laws is one factor that isn’t part of the study, but it plays a role in DUI statistics, said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who sponsored the legislation that changed Utah’s drunken driving limit.

“From my limited experience, it would seem that the biggest bang for the buck comes from visibility and awareness, whichever way a state goes,” he said. “There’s no real point in being tough if nobody knows about it.”

Shortly after the Utah law passed, the American Beverage Institute waged an advertising war against the state, placing full-page ads in newspapers under the headline: “Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation.”

The ads included a mug shot of a woman who “had one drink with dinner” and asserted that lowering the limit would subject sober people — including vacationers who’ve had a small amount of alcohol with dinner — to jail time and harm the tourism and hospitality industries.

With all the publicity, many Utah drivers assumed the new 0.05 limit had taken effect — even a year before it did.

“As we have seen in Utah," Thurston added, "with so much publicity around 0.05 BAC, that it had a measurable impact.”

During the first three months of 2019 — with the new law in place — 135 motorists were arrested for drunken driving with a blood alcohol level between a 0.05 and 0.079, according to quarterly data released by the Utah Highway Patrol.

Thurston said — in the months before the standard took hold — the Legislature studied some of the unintended consequences of the law, including the DUI fines and penalties.

“We really didn’t end up making any big changes,” he said. "In my opinion, we are in a pretty good spot.

Since releasing the study, other states have contacted Siegfried & Jensen about the statistics, Jefferies said. The firm hopes the report helps reduce accidents and fatalities and makes people think twice before drinking and getting behind the wheel.

“If the study makes people more aware, I think it’s a benefit to what we do,” he said. “We do represent people that are in accidents, but it doesn’t mean we want people to get into unnecessary accidents.”

To that end, does the law firm believe Utah needs tougher DUI penalties?

“It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “Other states put their punishment on the back end. We put our punishment on the front end. I don’t know what the right answer is. I guess that is what we’re all trying to figure out.”