Utah lowers BAC limit; majority of Americans support stricter limits

By Brian Lutenegger

On December 30, Utah will become the first U.S. state to reduce its blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for driving from 0.08 percent—still the standard in all other states—to 0.05 percent. The lower limit is on par with other countries, including some European nations and Australia.

A commentary written by the respective directors of two health policy institutes in Texas backs this change, citing a new poll that found 55 percent of Americans support this change and 46 percent support lowering the legal limit to 0.00 (no detectable alcohol).

They note that the National Transportation Safety Board has also pushed for the change based on data showing that the risk of a fatal crash is seven times higher among drivers with BACs of .05 to .079 percent as compared to drivers who have not been drinking. They estimate that this change, if implemented nationwide, would save nearly 1,800 lives every year.

Of course, such a change is not without controversy. Opponents in Utah express concerns about impacts to the state’s beverage and tourism industries, as well as criminalizing what they see as responsible drinking.

The survey that the Texas health policy experts cite also notes high levels of support for ignition interlocks for those convicted of driving under the influence, and insurance discounts for drivers who voluntarily install them. The researchers also indicate that promoting ridesharing services and making DUI enforcement highly visible are valuable efforts.

However, they may be only parts of a larger package of changes required to save lives. A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report released early this year supports the universal adoption of a 0.05 BAC limit across the country along with a package of other enforcement and policy changes around alcohol sales, consumption, and driving. These recommendations also include transportation alternatives, particularly for rural areas, such as rideshare and additional public transportation options late at night and on weekends that keep people out of the driver’s seat.

Other international studies have also cast doubt on the impact of a lower BAC of 0.05 percent or less—at least on its own—in reducing overall roadway deaths. A Spanish study noted that most European Union nations already have a lower BAC limit than the U.S., with some even at zero tolerance. But the countries with the strictest limits—mostly former Communist states in Eastern Europe—do not have better traffic outcomes. They cite higher alcohol consumption, low alcohol prices, and lack of enforcement as contributing factors. While BAC rates are effective in reducing fatalities, policies limiting alcohol consumption are also needed.

Another study examined Australia’s far lower roadway deaths (from all causes, not just alcohol) compared to the United States. While they do note Australia’s 0.05 percent BAC legal limit as a contributing factor,  they also attribute the difference to other factors like the built environment, roadway and intersection design, and driver licensing. While not directly tied to alcohol consumption, these other factors certainly play a role in the frequency and severity of accidents of all causes.

While Utah’s tightening of the legal BAC limit for drivers is an important step—and appears to have the support of the America people—other countries’ experiences show that additional changes may be needed to continue lowering roadway deaths related to alcohol consumption.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.