Utah adopts the lowest drunk driving limit in the country

By Rayla Bellis

Utah recently approved the nation’s strictest drunk driving standards. Republican Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation on March 23 that will reduce the maximum blood alcohol limit for drivers to .05 percent from the current threshold of .08 percent. The new standard is slated to take effect at the end of 2018.

The legislation has been controversial, pitting opponents in the state’s tourism and hospitality industries against supporters in the fields of transportation safety, and public health. Critics argue that the stricter limit will hurt the state’s economy, which receives major contributions from tourism. Opponents have also raised concerns that the new threshold will cause negative perceptions of the state from outsiders. Utah’s population is 60% Mormon, and the church has had a significant influence on the state’s politics and culture surrounding alcohol. Utah was also the first state to adopt a standard of .08 percent BAC, which all other states now have.

Supporters counter that the new standard is intended to discourage driving under the influence, not consuming alcohol. “This law does not target drinking; it is a public safety law that targets impaired driving,” Governor Herbert has said of the legislation.

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that all states adopt a 0.05 BAC limit. NTSB argues that stricter laws could save nearly 1,800 lives annually. Supporters of the law, including Herbert, have also noted that 85 percent of the world’s population already lives under a .05% standard, including residents of Canada, Australia, and many European countries.

Yet some stakeholders have questioned whether drunk driving is the most pressing concern in reducing traffic fatalities in the state. The Highway Safety Office has noted that driving under the influence is less of a factor in fatal crashes in Utah than speed and lack of seatbelt use. Of drivers tested for impairment following a fatal crash last year, just 13 percent had alcohol in their system, and 57 percent were completely sober. SSTI has also previously written about the role that road and community design will need to play in reducing traffic deaths nationwide.

Governor Herbert has acknowledged these statistics and other concerns by noting that while the law has been signed, the measure is far from finished. He has encouraged stakeholders to attend hearings in the coming months to help modify and improve the standard before it takes effect in 2018. Herbert has also requested that lawmakers look at increasing the penalties for distracted driving and expand enforcement of Utah’s traffic safety laws.

Will other states follow Utah’s lead and adopt stricter standards? The answer may depend on whether the law produces the anticipated traffic fatality reductions.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager for SSTI.