Utah’s DUI tally for 2019 about the same as last year despite stricter law

(Sean P. Means | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Utah Highway Patrol's Col. Michael Rapich talks about the first day of enforcement of Utah's stricter new DUI laws on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018, at UHP's offices in Taylorsville.

The Utah Highway Patrol estimates that the number of drunken driving arrests in 2019 is about the same as last year — even though the state has been operating under the nation’s strictest DUI law for the past 12 months.

On Dec. 30, 2018, Utah’s blood alcohol standard — used to determine when drivers are considered legally impaired — dropped from 0.08% to 0.05%.

“The 0.05 change was absolutely never about arresting people that we wouldn’t have otherwise arrested," UHP Col. Michael S. Rapich said Monday. “The biggest thing was encouraging people to make better decisions.”

Speaking on the Utah “Booze News" podcast, Rapich said Utah law enforcement agencies previously made, on average, about 10,000 DUI arrests a year.

“We’re in that ballpark this year," he said, noting final annual figures are not yet available. "So not a really significant change in the number of people that were arrested for DUI.”

He estimated that about 7% — or about 700 — of those DUI arrests will fall between 0.05% and 0.079%.

In the first three months of 2019 — the only firm figures UHP has released so far this year — drunken-driving arrests rose by 4.5%. There were 2,713 arrests, up from 2,595 in the same time period of 2018.

Of those, 135 people were arrested for drunken driving with between a 0.05% blood alcohol level and 0.79%. Many of them, however, also would have been arrested under previous laws, including 59 people who are under age 21 and 27 who were “alcohol restricted” by courts for previous DUI convictions. Both groups have long been banned from driving with any alcohol in their systems.

Still, Rapich said, final 2019 numbers should be consistent with the first-quarter snapshot. They seem to be trending about the same way through the remaining quarters.”

When the tougher DUI measure first passed, critics warned it would harm the state’s hospitality and tourism industries, scaring away visitors and landing more of them in jail.

The American Beverage Institute stepped into the debate, placing full-page ads in newspapers under the headline: “Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation.” The national group said only 1% of traffic fatalities involve drivers with blood alcohol content between 0.05% and 0.08%.

As part of its strategic planning, the Utah Office of Tourism tracked the issue on social media, said Managing Director Vicki Varela, looking at 35 million posts between summer 2016 and summer 2019.

“We got very high ratings for locally crafted beers. Lots of posts of people enjoying a beer, and comments about great atmosphere, nightlife, etc. in Salt Lake and Ogden,” she wrote in an email. “There were very few posts about 0.05 or other liquor laws.”

The UHP still has one more day to collect DUI data for 2019, and public safety agencies plan to take several weeks to vet the information for accuracy before releasing the final — and highly anticipated — numbers.

“Everyone who has been a part of this big change is anxious to see what that first year looks like,” Rapich said, noting that he has been contacted by safety officials in other states. The National Transportation Safety Board has noted that impairment can begin with as little as one drink and has recommended that all states change to the 0.05% standard adopted by Utah.

Despite its reputation as a night for excessive alcohol consumption, DUI arrests on New Year’s Eve have dropped through the years. (July 24, Pioneer Day, is now the most problematic holiday).

New Year’s Eve is “not as big a problem as other holidays simply because we have brought a lot of attention to it,” he said. "People are aware of it. And I think people make better decisions.”

Of course, he added, if a driver is impaired, “we will still arrest you.”