The Strict Drunk Driving Law That Could Become a Model for Other States

Utah’s one-of-a-kind drunk driving law helped lower alcohol-related traffic deaths despite initial doubts, a new federal study shows, and now federal officials are touting it as a potential model for other states.

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the study shows that NTSB’s years-long campaign to lower the legal limit on blood in a driver’s system was vindicated.

“Those who opposed the NTSB’s recommendations [when the Utah law was passed in 2017] said the numbers would not improve and that it could be detrimental to businesses,” Homendy said in an interview with Transport Topics, which covers the freight industry.

“We know now that impaired driving crashes were reduced and that it did not have an impact on business. It was a success. It just shows that initiatives like just reducing the BAC [blood alcohol concentration] level can result in a culture change,” Homendy said.

Utah was the first, and so far, only, state to lower the legal amount of alcohol in a driver’s blood from 0.08% to 0.05%.

Researchers from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration studied the effects the law had on road fatalities in its first year.

Road deaths were lower in 2019, the first year the law was in effect, than in 2016, the last year before it had passed, even though people in Utah drove more in 2019.

Utah also saw greater decreases in road deaths than the country as a whole, when comparing how many fatalities occurred per mile driven. The fatality rate in Utah dropped 18.3% between 2016 and 2019, compared to 5.9% nationally.

The drop in road deaths in Utah was also greater than any of its neighboring states saw in the same time, the NHTSA researchers said.

The federal researchers noted that Utah did not mount a public messaging campaign about the new law and did not do any major enforcement efforts, either. In fact, DUI arrest levels remained level while alcohol sales increased after the law took effect.

“Utah typically has one of the lowest rates of impaired driving fatalities in the nation, but this study shows that all states have room for improvement. As our study shows, changing the law to .05% in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired,” said Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, in a statement.

Critics Say Safety Improvements Negligible

The American Beverage Institute, which aggressively fought Utah’s new law, said the NHTSA report was “cherry picking” data.

Thirty other states saw drops in alcohol-related road fatalities during the time the study looked at, and three other small-population states saw even bigger decreases than Utah, ABI spokesperson Jackson Shedelbower told The Associated Press.

The industry group is trying to prevent other states from adopting Utah’s lower standard, too. It argues that the safety improvements are negligible, but that the stricter rules could hurt the hospitality industry.

“A driver who is talking on a hands-free cellphone or simply driving while over the age of 65 is more impaired than someone at 0.05,” the group argues on its website.

“It’s obvious why drivers with a 0.05 BAC aren’t significantly impaired, they’ve had relatively little to drink. A 120-pound woman will hit 0.05 after having little more than a single drink and a 160-pound man would be considered legally drunk after two. This makes what is usually considered responsible behavior into a criminal act,” it wrote.

The NTSB, meanwhile, has lowering the blood alcohol limit as one of its top priorities for increasing safety in the country’s transportation system.

Homendy, the NTSB chair, said she was hopeful that California, Hawaii, Michigan, New York and other states, where lawmakers have considered similar legislation, will pass 0.05 BAC laws as well.