Utah’s new toughest-in-nation DUI limit snags 49 people in first 3 months

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Daud Eftin, and Trooper Kelley Jensen, give a field sobriety test, during the Highway Patrol DUI Blitz on New Year's Eve. The subject was released after passing the test. Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Last year, driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) between 0.05 and 0.079 was legal in Utah. But 49 people found out the hard way that is no longer the case during the first three months of the year.

As Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law took effect, overall DUI arrests also increased by 4.5% in that period, according to data released by the Utah Highway Patrol. It waits about 90 days to release data for each quarter because blood test results often are delayed — plus it takes time to collect information from around the state.

Overall, 135 people were arrested for drunken driving with between a 0.05 BAC and 0.79 in that quarter.

But many of them also would have been arrested under previous laws. That included 59 people who are under age 21 plus another 27 who were “alcohol restricted” by courts, such as for previous DUI convictions. Both groups have long been banned from driving with any alcohol in their systems.

The Highway Patrol also reported that DUI arrests were up in the quarter, while DUI crashes and fatalities were down.

DUI arrests totaled 2,713, compared to 2,595 in the first quarter of 2018.

Alcohol-related crashes decreased from 416 to 236, down 43%. Deaths in those accidents decreased from 10 to three, down 70%.

Sgt. Nick Street, spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said it is too early to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the law aimed at reducing drunken driving.

“But it looks promising,” he said. With a decrease in the number of alcohol-related crashes and deaths, “We would love to see that hold. But we’re not ready to jump to the conclusion that is the reason why this has happened.”

Opponents of the new law had predicted that it also may chase away tourists, or erode business at restaurants and bars. Officials in those industries say it is too early to know for sure, but they have seen little evidence of that so far.

“We had a record ski season. But you might be able to say it could have been an even better record without it. I don’t know,” said Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake. He said great snowfall led to more than 5 million ski days and erased any noticeable decline over fear of the new DUI laws.

Shortly after the law took effect, some people interviewed at Utah ski resorts said they planned not to return in coming years because of the law.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said, “We haven’t heard directly from anyone that it’s been a problem,” but also said it is too early to draw any conclusions. “We want to get at least through the summer” before looking at trends to see what effect the law may have had.