Back in 2017, when Utah became the first state to lower its drunken driving threshold to a blood alcohol level of 0.05, we were all promised that adopting the toughest DUI standard in the nation would save lives.
It was expected, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, to reduce drunken driving fatalities by 11% — and who wouldn’t want that? So of course the Legislature passed it, to much backslapping and feel-good fanfare.
I was skeptical at the time because the data was pretty compelling that those drivers between 0.05 BAC and the old limit of 0.07 were very rarely involved in fatal crashes — with just 35 fatal accidents in the 16-year span leading up to the passage of the law, and in 2/3 of those other factors like drugs and excessive speed were also in play.
Now we have four years of data, which shows conclusively the law has not worked as promised. Instead of a decrease in DUI deaths, we’ve seen the numbers rise. On Wednesday, legislators had planned to receive the latest state DUI report, but it was removed from the committee’s agenda.
Based on the latest Department of Public Safety data, however, the news is not good.
According to the DPS dashboard, Utah set a record for DUI-related fatalities in 2022 with 62 crashes. The preliminary validated data from the department has fewer — 51 deaths. Either way, after a decline the first year the law took effect — one that proponents of the law claimed was proof it was working — alcohol-related deaths have risen.
In the four years since the law took effect, 187 people died in alcohol-related crashes, up about 20% from before the law passed, and the last three years have been the highest on record.
Simple increases in population and miles traveled can’t account for such a large spike. Overall traffic fatalities have also climbed, but DUI crashes have made up a larger percentage of those deaths since the passage of the law.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting the law is to blame. The drivers are. But the law hasn’t worked because it isn’t targeting the real problem — those who drink well beyond any legal limit and get behind the wheel.
According to the last DUI report to the Legislature, among those arrested for drunken driving who had a blood-alcohol level reported, 41% were above 0.15, triple the legal limit. The highest, by the way, was 0.46, an individual who should probably have been in the morgue but definitely not behind the wheel. Nearly 30% of those arrested had already had at least one prior DUI.
Meantime, over the last three years, nearly 2,100 people with an alcohol level below the old limit of 0.08 have been arrested. Arrests for those with higher blood-alcohol contents have actually declined significantly, down by an average of 45% from pre-0.05 levels. Figure that out.
As we know, those arrests can come with a steep cost, with a first offense potentially resulting in two days in jail or community service, $1,400 in fines, the cost of treatment, a court-ordered Interlock, impound fees, a driver license suspension and higher insurance rates.
None of this is to suggest that people should be driving drunk. They absolutely should not.
But discerning when someone is 0.05 versus 0.04 is almost impossible — for the consumer, the server or the police officer. We’re still arresting a whole bunch of people who maybe had one glass of wine too many at dinner but still statistically pose significantly less risk than drivers on their phones and habitual drunken drivers who pose a real danger are not being deterred in the slightest.
The data all points in the same direction: The law hasn’t worked.
It’s probably foolish to think that the Legislature would abandon the policy and go back to the more practical 0.08 standard. At a minimum, though, they should consider lowering the penalties for those in the 0.05 to 0.07 range, and focus efforts and resources on keeping problem drunks off the road.
Update: June 15, 2023, 12:40 a.m. • Since this story was first published, the Department of Public Safety provided different data for 2022 DUI fatalities than was on the department’s website. The story and headline have been updated to reflect the new preliminary figures.