‘If Utah isn’t enforcing current DUI laws, why is it passing controversial new ones?’ national group asks

State’s new drunken-driving law doesn’t go into effect until 2018, but it may have contributed to fewer DUI arrests this year.<br>

The American Beverage Institute is again taking a swing at Utah and its controversial new drunken-driving law.

This time the national lobbying group is criticizing the state for failing to enforce its mandatory ignition interlock device law.

Utah has the second-worst compliance rate in the country for the in-car breathalyzers, according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. The device will prevent a vehicle from turning on if alcohol is detected in the driver’s system.

“If Utah isn’t enforcing current DUI laws, why is it passing controversial new ones like the 0.05 BAC arrest threshold?” ABI asked in a one-page document sent this week to Utah lawmakers.

Utah is one of 30 states that require drivers convicted of a DUI to install interlock devices in their cars. ABI contends that 7,300 Utah residents are supposed to have them installed in cars, but don’t. That calls into question the state’s dedication to preventing drunken driving, said Sarah Longwell, ABI’s managing director.

“Utah legislators who are looking for the best way to save lives on the roads should focus on enforcing existing laws targeting convicted drunk drivers rather than passing new ones that target moderate social drinkers,” she said in a news release.

Earlier this year, Utah lowered its blood-alcohol content for driving under the influence from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, the first state in the country to adopt the tougher limit. The law doesn’t take effect until Dec. 30, 2018.

Since the Utah law was passed and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert, ABI has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars placing full-page ads in Idaho and Nevada newspapers as well as USA Today criticizing the new policy.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, doesn’t believe ABI’s logic, saying there are many Utah laws that deal with drunken driving and they are not “mutually exclusive.” He sees the ABI document as an attempt to distract from the real issue.

“It’s a nice smokescreen,” he said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “The key point is that if people don’t drink and drive, they won’t have to worry about installing expensive interlocks and dealing with a DUI on their record.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, which supports a 0.05 limit, has said numerous studies show impairment starts after only one alcoholic drink, and people are noticeably impaired at 0.04 — which is the BAC limit for commercial truck drivers.

The NTSB also notes that more than 100 countries have a 0.05 limit, and the United States is among the few that do not.

“It’s a conundrum to me why the beverage institute — if it looks at the data from Europe — is so fearful of this law,” Eliason said. “Europeans consume far more alcohol per capita, but have stricter DUI laws.”

Eliason added that many Utah drivers already assume the new 0.05 limit is being enforced and that is contributing to a lower DUI rate for 2017.

With 10 days to go before the end of the year, the number of drunken-driving arrests is down 275 from last year, said Chris Caras, director of the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Driver License Division.

“Anecdotally we’ve heard that people believe the law is in effect and are choosing to not drink and drive,” he said. “But we have no way of validating that.”

Caras contends the numbers ABI is using for interlock-device enforcement are exaggerated.

There are 14,000 Utahns who have violations and are in the ignition interlock program, he said. About half are not eligible to reinstate their license and would not yet need to own the device. About 3,000 people are in compliance, leaving 5,300 people in question.

“That may sound scary,” Caras said, but the department has no way of knowing if those people still have a car, have decided to use public transportation or ride services to get around, or have moved out of state.

“If the state wanted to increase enforcement, it could create some sort of oversight program,” he said, noting that many states do that. But in Utah, only those who come in contact with law enforcement and are identified as being out of compliance are cited.

Last year, he said, the state issued 620 citations for interlock violations.