Understand what Utah’s new standard for driving under the influence of alcohol is.
It is a real-time experiment in governance, law enforcement and social engineering, conducted on real live people, people who have not signed any of the informed consent paperwork that would normally accompany the status of human guinea pig.
It could very well turn out that the first-in-the-nation move toward lowering the acceptable blood alcohol content from the old 0.08 percent to the new 0.05 percent will someday be seen as a good idea. People may wonder why it was every anything else.
Or we could come to the conclusion that the lower level is effectively, if not deliberately, a way to discourage even responsible drinking, to make criminals out of decent and harmless individuals, as well as a gratuitous kick in the pants to the state’s important tourism and hospitality industries, all without any measurable improvement in highway safety.
How will we be able to make that determination? Like any experiment, the key is in marking down all the relevant data, and letting that cold, hard information, rather than any pre-conceived ideas or desires, carry the day.
What we will need to know, as soon as the information can be gathered and assessed, is whether there will be any appreciable number of drivers who are pulled over for evidence of impaired driving — accidents, weaving through traffic, going way too fast or suspiciously slow — who test out somewhere between the new limit and the old. The Utah Highway Patrol says that such observable behavior, not games of Breathalyzer gotcha, will continue to be the basis of DUI arrests.
If there are many such cases (and it appears there may have been one in Summit County on New Year’s Day), that would provide evidence that, as advocates of the law have insisted, real impairment can set in at the lower level. If not, and such levels are only detected in drivers who are tested after accidents that may or may not have been caused by impaired driving, then we may reasonably conclude that a BAC of roughly 0.05 is not such a hazard after all.
Past data does suggest that most of those properly arrested for drunk driving were running at levels not only in violation of the 0.05 limit, but were over, sometimes way over, the 0.08 level. If that continues to be the case, it would be evidence that the lower limit serves no purpose.
While this data is being collected, Utah voters should continue to ask if driving under the influence of alcohol is the only highway hazard we care about. The “If it saves one life” argument in favor of the lower level rings quite hollow when the same rationale could be uttered in favor of things the Utah Legislature refuses to consider.
There is little question that lives would also be saved if Utah were to crack down on those who talk or text while driving, or ease back on the recent trend of raising speed limits on rural highways, or lower the boom on generators of air pollution. The fact that state leaders aren’t interested in the lives that would be saved by doing those things suggests an unhealthy fixation on alcohol, which may be inspired by the religious faith of most of our lawmakers, and a hands-off approach to everything else, valued by those same legislators.