Tribune Editorial: Lower driver alcohol limit? Fears of apocalypse were all wet

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Norm Thurston talks about the Utah's strict new DUI law, which lowers the blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05, which goes into effect, On Dec. 30. Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018.

A year into the nation’s strictest limit on alcohol in drivers, the most noticeable thing is how unnoticeable it’s been.

“Come for vacation. Leave on probation,” was the headline the beverage industry used in full-page ads three years ago in its campaign against reducing Utah’s legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08% to 0.05%. Critics in the hospitality business joined the chorus, claiming the law would damage Utah’s multi-billion-dollar tourism stake.

Members of the 2017 Utah Legislature didn’t back down, but they were spooked enough to delay implementation until late 2018.

This week Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael S. Rapich said the number of DUI arrests in 2019, when the legal limit was 0.05%, were roughly what they were in 2018, when it was 0.08%.

There also appears to be a small decrease in alcohol-related crashes and fatalities last year, although that data is still being compiled.

Correlation is not causation, but this move may have saved some lives — not by arrests but by greater awareness from those who otherwise might be tempted to drive when they shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t appear the law has had any effect on Utah’s alcohol consumption, which continues to climb faster than the population. There’s also no sign of a hit on Utah’s tourism and convention business.

Despite one dry church’s domination, Utah’s identity is not monocultural. That is better understood outside our state than many Utahns think.

People know they can get a drink here. If we’re facing a competitive disadvantage with the Colorado ski industry, it’s probably more about cannabis than alcohol. That one really spooks the legislators.

This law does put more pressure on us to mature our transportation infrastructure. Most European nations have been at 0.05% for years, even though the average European drinks more than the rest of the world. They’ve had the advantage of more trains, buses and bikes. We need more of that. The emergence of ride sharing services are another key component.

Rep. Norm Thurston, the bill’s sponsor, said it would be three to five years to know the full effects of this. That’s true, but we already know the dire predictions about Utah’s hospitality industry were overblown.

In reality, we’re so much weirder than our blood alcohol limit. Outsiders know it, and they are undeterred.

Come, come, ye tourists, no toil nor labor fear;

But with joy wend your way.

We’ll drive.

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