When Utah lawmakers passed the nation’s toughest drunken driving law in March, the state drew plenty of criticism and became the butt of a joke.
“Utah, come for vacation, leave on probation,” read the American Beverage Industry ad that ran in newspapers across the West and poked the state for dropping its blood alcohol content (BAC) threshold for drivers from the national standard of 0.08 to 0.05.
Despite the chiding, increasing numbers of Utahns support the law.
A new poll shows a majority — 52 percent — are in favor of the tougher DUI standard, while 45 percent oppose it.
This comes from The Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that queried 605 registered voters from Oct. 10 to 13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points.
The new numbers show a slight uptick in support seen in two earlier polls in which the rates were more evenly split at 50 percent to 47 percent.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the source of that support: 64 percent comes from Republicans, 66 percent from self-described conservatives and 66 percent from “very active” Latter-day Saints.
Brigham City’s Beverly Call counts herself among the majority.
The 64-year-old Mormon grandmother has never touched a drop of drink and doesn’t care if others do, but said no one should ever have to pay for an impaired driver’s poor choice.
“I’ve had friends who have been hurt by it and friends who have gone to prison for it,” she said. “Both are devastating and both leaving a lasting mark on families for years.”
Call said she has little sympathy for the law’s opponents who argue that the new BAC threshold infringes on their rights.
“Before they point a finger at everyone else and complain how bad American drunk driving laws are, they should think about how they infringe on the rights of others,” she said. “They do not have the right to be so selfish that they drink and then get behind the wheel.”
After all, Call said, Utah’s new law isn’t any tougher than those in Europe and other countries that also subscribe to the 0.05 standard.
The argument echoes one made by state Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, when he led the push to change the law.
But Thurston didn’t win over everyone.
Polling data show 77 percent of Democrats oppose the law, along with 54 percent of politically unaffiliated respondents.
And among religious groups, 86 percent of Catholics oppose the lower BAC threshold, as do 64 percent of Protestants, 66 percent of “not active” Mormons and 79 percent of those who either identified as “other” or not affiliated with any church.
Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the poll results offer no real surprises and to him, breaking down the data into specific demographic groups doesn’t really matter.
“When the Utah Highway Patrol arrests you, they don’t ask if you’re a Democrat or a conservative or whatever. When somebody kills you, they don’t ask,” he said. “What this really signals is that people are beginning to understand that impairment begins below 0.08 and you shouldn’t be on the road.”
Melva Sine, executive director of the Utah Restaurant Association, which fought the change, said it may be too soon to know what Utahns really think because the law won’t take effect until Dec. 30, 2018.
“There is an air of concern about it in the restaurant industry,” Sine said. “But we can’t really analyze the data effectively until the law is in place.”
Proponents sold the new 0.05 BAC threshold to lawmakers largely on a public safety argument, saying it would save lives by reducing DUI crashes and fatalities. Opponents question whether the standard will keep impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.
As Sine notes, most DUI arrests in Utah are of people who have BAC levels well above the current legal limit.
In fact, a recent Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice report found among the 10,755 DUI arrests in fiscal year 2016, the average BAC content of drivers was nearly 0.15.
Sine and others have also questioned the logic of imposing tough penalties on drivers with BAC between 0.05 and 0.08. and point to the tiered penalty systems adopted by Colorado and New York, where 0.05 laws are also on the books.
That’s an approach Gov. Gary Herbert has said he might support if recommended by the legislative committee tasked with reviewing the law’s impact on state tourism and other industries before its implementation in 2018.
Sine is watching the committee’s progress and says all sides want what’s best for Utah and anticipates changes that reflect and support Utah’s hospitable nature.
Brown, on the other hand, contends Utahns should be focused on the more important conversation about impairment. That’s a message he says gets lost in the noise around “legal” BAC levels, whether the issue is raised in a legislative debate or a poll question.
“There is only one legal limit,” Brown said. “It’s don’t drive impaired, and we are missing that dialogue.”