There was little ambiguity in last Thursday’s front-page story headlined, “Local police waiting to see effects from new DUI law.” Local law enforcement officials interviewed for the story made it clear:
The Legislature’s and governor’s lowering of the state’s legal limit for driving drunk from .08 percent to .05 percent blood/alcohol concentration is welcome, but it’s not expected to make roadways in Tooele County appreciably safer.
Perhaps Tooele County Sheriff Paul Wimmer summarized it best. He agrees with the messaging — or good intentions — of the new BAC law on public safety, but added, “I don’t see that it’s going to impact our operations a great deal.”
Based on available DUI traffic data, what Wimmer said is not only pragmatic but is based on fact. As the news story explained, the vast majority of DUI arrests in the county involve motorists who are intoxicated well above the current .08 BAC limit.
For example, sheriff deputies made 110 DUI stops during the past 12 consecutive months, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office. The DUIs, which were split between blood draws and intoxilyzer tests, returned results averaging .17 BAC.
That level is more than double the current legal limit.
But more specifically, based on data from the sheriff’s office, if the new .05 BAC law were in effect during the past 12 months, only three additional DUI arrests would have been made.
Such numbers suggest that motorists who drive in the county at .05 BAC, or even at .08 BAC, evidently aren’t drunk enough to drive in a manner that reveals impairment and get caught. Grantsville City Police Officer Alison Peterson said she has seldom seen indications of impairment below the current .08 BAC standard.
“Usually we’re looking at two or three times the legal limit of .08,” she said.
Yet, despite local law enforcement officials’ doubts that the .05 BAC limit will reduce drunk driving, there is value in its “message.” If the new law inspires more motorists to be cautious and aware of their drinking and driving — and helps prevent just one serious or fatal accident — then it’s worth it.
Although the new law, which takes effect in Dec. 2018, makes Utah the first state in the nation with a .05 BAC threshold, it’s a distinction the state doesn’t need to make excuses for or defend. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose mission is to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity,” claims there is reduced coordination, ability to track moving objects, response to emergency driving situations and difficulty steering at .05 BAC. That amount is about three drinks in one hour for a 160-pound man.
While every individual’s alcohol tolerance is different, the NHTSA’s findings on BAC impairment are hard to refute. The state wanting to change from .08 to .05 BAC isn’t based on arbitrary science.
The Utah Legislature’s passing, and Gov. Gary Herbert’s signing, of the new .05 BAC law represents a welcomed effort to help make Utah roadways safer. Time will tell, however, if that effort will make any difference.