Other States Should Copy Utah’s New Drunk Driving Rule

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Utah just enacted the most aggressive standard for drunk driving in the country, lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit to .05 percent.

The change, which took effect Dec. 31, was championed by State Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican of Provo, told a local radio show, “it sends the message that in our state we don’t want you to drink and drive.”

Utah State Rep. Norm Thursday (R-Provo). Photo: Thurston
Utah State Rep. Norm Thursday

The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging states to lower the BAC limit — which was .08 in every state — for a little over a year, calling it one of its “most wanted” transportation safety improvements in 2017 and 2018 [PDF] because impairment begins well below .08. For those with a BAC between .05 and .08 the risk of a fatal crash is seven times greater, according to Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of NTSB. The average 165-pound man would still have to drink between two and three drinks to reach a BAC of .05, which takes three hours to fully dissipate.

Washington and Hawaii have also introduced bills lowering BAC limits to .05 at the agency’s urging. Drunk driving still killed 10,500 Americans in 2015. But that only includes drivers with a BAC over .08. An additional 1,800 people were killed in crashes in which the driver had a BAC between .05 and .08, NTSB reports.

Nevertheless, Thurston is being attacked by “beverage industry” lobbyists and other critics, like Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke.

But the Utah legislature was right to ignore them. Every other peer nation in the world already imposes a .05 threshold, the World Health Organization said, as Streetsblog reported. Those nations all have dramatically lower per-capital traffic fatality rates.

Canada, for example, has a .05 BAC limit and also imposes stricter penalties on those who are caught violating the laws, according to Neil Arason, director of injury prevention and healthy settings at the British Columbia Ministry of Health. Stricter rules are one key reason Canada’s per capita traffic death rate is about half the U.S.’s, Arason says. Alcohol-related fatal crashes declined 40 percent in British Columbia, for example, after the providence instituted stricter drunk driving laws in 2010.

46 thoughts on Other States Should Copy Utah’s New Drunk Driving Rule

  1. One of the problems, of course, is that in so many places there is no realistic alternative to driving. Public transportation is often poor, or even nonexistent, especially late at night. Cabs are expensive or unavailable. Uber and Lyft have helped with this, but still aren’t available everywhere (and I don’t know how long they are going to last anyway, considering they are still not making a profit).

  2. It’s a question of what people accept. Much of rural Sweden is not walking distance to a bar and their BAC limit is 0.02. It’s just not socially acceptable for someone who has drunk anything to drive. If people really want to go out for a drink, they will pay for a taxi.

  3. The 0.05 BAC law will make criminals of responsible social drinkers who have modest amounts of alcohol in social occasions and have little or no increased risk of having accidents than someone with a BAC of 0.00. Scotland mandated 0.05 and found no improved safety over England which retained 0.08 which matches most of the USA.

    If officials found innovative ways to use its scarce enforcement and prosecutorial resources to target drivers with BAC levels of 0.14 and up that are involved in about 25% of fatals, we could get a major advance in safety. Wasting parts of those scarce resources on drivers from 0.05 to 0.079 will result in little or no safety improvement.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. It sounds like you’re calling Dr. Dinh-Zarr a liar, when she says that “for those with a BAC between .05 and .08 the risk of a fatal crash is seven times greater.” Do you have access to fatality data the NTSB doesn’t have?

  5. Every year, smoking kills more than 276,000 men and 142,000 women. We’d get more bang for our buck focusing on something like this. Giving Law Enforcement another cudgel with which to beat low income citizens is not a good idea.

  6. Compare the results for high BAC drivers and ask yourself where do you put the scarce enforcement and prosecutorial resources for the greatest benefit? Remember, something like 69% of crash deaths involve drivers with no BAC level. EVERY exposure to traffic involves some risk, though overall driving is incredibly safe per mile traveled in the USA. If you are in a car for about 15,000 miles a year, you will be involved in a crash with a fatality of a pedestrian, cyclist of vehicle occupant about once every 5,700 years.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  7. The for-profit fringe group jcwconsult shills for was against drunk driving laws back when they first began gaining steam in the early ’80s. They’re an anti-accountability group, and they don’t let pesky facts get in the way of their agenda.

    Luckily their lobbyists are usually laughed out of the room by politicians and their membership is tiny. They’re not to be taken seriously.

  8. The real opposition to these laws comes from the alcohol industry, because they know they will cut into their sales. The industry opposed BAC limits since the beginning, because their focus is on profit and not safety.

    When the BAC limit is lowered, I bet we’ll see more bar owners and beverage producers pushing for transit options.

  9. I’m going to pile on: An article on drunk driving fatalities that doesn’t mention hit and runs is incomplete.

    How about a thoughtful analysis of hit and run rates before and after changing BAC limits and an attempt to extrapolate how many people are being left in the road by drivers who don’t want to chance a breathalyzer?

    Conversely, if you figure out how to enforce this at the scene of a crash (rather than DUI checkpoints), we might have something to talk about. Maybe constant GPS tracking of vehicles?

    Or enforcement with teeth. Something like Canada where if a foreign national is caught on a DUI, they are never welcome in the country again. California should sign on to that.

    Or (once again referencing Canada) public acceptance of openly drinking a beer while walking to a bar.

    My impression is that MADD’s actions have been regressive and not very useful in actuality increasing safety. An article that focuses on the limit (like MADD does) without discussion of side effects or other nuances is missing opportunities.

  10. Utah… Duh… Mormons don’t drink; they just don’t like the growth of the non-mormon population.

    They’d get more bang for their buck if they outlawed people between the ages of 18-25.

  11. Honestly this is mostly BS. People process alcohol differently and just because someone has had a couple drinks does not mean they are unsafe, nor is an accident is in any way automatically related to the alcohol. Drunk driving has become an industry – driven by lawyers on both sides to extract money from social drinkers and totally screw people who made honest mistakes – often who where in NO WAY a risk. Stop making this such a bogey man, an honest conversation does not assume anyone who drinks anything is some kind of raging stumbling maniac.

    The bigger problem is that in the US, despite Uber, you typically don’t have much of a choice but to drive.

  12. It’s not “a couple drinks.” It’s four per hour.

    A .08 percent blood alcohol content is the equivalent of a 160-pound man drinking four beers in an hour or a 140-pound woman drinking three beers in an hour.

    A .05 percent blood alcohol content would take the same man about three beers in an hour to reach, and that same woman a little more than 2 beers.

    And it’s not a small risk – roughly a third of all fatal crashes involve intoxication.

    But yes, the big problem is our lack of safe transportation choices.

  13. “People process alcohol differently and just because someone has had a couple drinks does not mean they are unsafe, nor is an accident is in any way automatically related to the alcohol.”

    1. This is one reason that we use BAC and not how many drinks you have drunk.
    2. If you are suggesting that there is difference in behavioral impairment for different people at the same BAC, there was a study funded by NHSTA that concluded

    “Although some epidemiological studies have suggested possible differences in degree of alcohol impairment as a function of differences in age, gender and drinking practices, this laboratory study failed to detect such differential impairments. Within the limits of the population represented by the study sample, impairment differences between subjects were insignificant and solely determined by BAC.”


    Noboby is claiming that someone who drinks alcohol is ipso facto a “raging, stumbling, maniac”. What we are claiming, however, is that operating a vehicle is a dangerous activity that kills thousands of people every year. It should be done in a way that isn’t impaired by alcohol. Our society should find ways to allow people to have social drinks without endangering the public. Whether that’s better urban planning, transit policy or whatever.

  14. Said another way, this means that more than 1 out of 100 drivers will be the driver in a crash where someone during dies during their lifetime.*

    *I don’t actually think that your statistics are true, (a quick Wikipedia search leads me to believe that it would be much more frequent, but I am not an expert) Even still, your numbers are still terrifying.

  15. You are correct, it is NOT no risk. Here is the math. Our annual fatality rate is now 1.16 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled or one fatality per 86,206,896 miles traveled, divided by 15,000 or once every 5,747 years. The risks are over 75% lower than in 1960 when I got my first license and the rate was 5.08 fatalities per 100 M VMT.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  16. No, Sincerely, your statement is deliberately false. We have NEVER been against drunk driving laws. Our position is to set the laws at the levels which more accurately reflect the significantly increased levels of actual risks. Roughly 25% of fatals involve a driver with a BAC of 0.14 and up. Concentrating our scarce enforcement and prosecutorial resources against this group would have the greatest payoff in improved safety, MANY times higher than wasting those scarce resources versus drivers with much lower BAC levels whose risk factors are far lower than that high 0.14+ group.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  17. If I am to believe those who are advocating a lower alcohol limit for drivers, the subject is saving lives. Research shows that policing drivers at the lower limits of impairment is a costly affair so my comment goes directly to the point that we would save more lives if we focused our meager resources (thank you Republican tax cuts) on reducing smoking deaths. 10,000 vs 400,000 seems like a no brainer.

  18. Your organization has actively worked against drunk driving laws since the 1980s. That statement is a fact, not “deliberately false.” You are working hard today to deny the reality that even low levels of alcohol intoxication impairs the ability to drive safely, because you are an anti-accountability group.

    About 6% of fatal accidents involve people with a BAC between 0.10 and 0.14. At 0.08%, your risk of a crash has gone up 300% versus unimpaired driving. It is, apparently, the NMA’s position that 6% is a small number and that a decision that triples the risk of a collision is totally acceptable. As usual, the NMA is pushing laws that would result in more people dying.

  19. Lowering the BAC limit would not add any burden to police. The primary effect is deterrence. Enforcement is there to make the deterrence credible. If you have fewer impaired drivers you would also have fewer collisions for police to write up. I’m all for anti-smoking public health initiatives but they have absolutely zero to do with drunk driving. Like many efforts to change to subject, there is a question of what not both?

  20. Our position is to set the laws and penalties at the levels which more accurately reflect the significantly increased levels of actual risks. 300% of a tiny number is still a tiny number, unlike the risks for 0.14+ BAC drivers.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  21. The people who die from smoking are mostly the people who choose to smoke and, one could argue, a much smaller percentage of people who choose to live with smokers.

    No one chooses a fatal encounter with a drunk driver.

  22. You seem to be trying to dodge my question. Is it true or not true that a driver with a BAC between 0.5 and 0.8 has “little or no increased risk of having accidents” than someone with a BAC of 0.0?

  23. Sincerely says 300% by 0.08, you quote 700% by 0.08, so there are different numbers from different research. I don’t question that the risks are higher – but they are not higher by any large absolute amounts.

    My point is that we do NOT have the enforcement or prosecutorial resources to go after every case involving BAC. I want the scarce resources concentrated toward the drivers with the highest risks – including the 0.14 drivers that involved in something like 25% of the fatals. I want so see big gains, and that comes from preventing accidents involving the very highest risk groups.

    The same is true for other enforcement. If the safest posted limit on a rural freeway would be 80 mph to match the actual 85th percentile speed that fell between 78 and 82 mph, I want the enforcement to be versus drivers well above the 85th speed that are out of the normal pattern. I do NOT want the posted limit to be improperly set at 65 or 70 and the enforcement resources squandered in for-profit speed trap stings collecting money from mostly safe drivers traveling safely from the mid-70s to low 80s range.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  24. Part of the problem is that people are terrible judges of how drunk they are; if they think they have to be “really drunk” before they’ll face legal consequences, as you want, many of the people who are in fact within the range you consider particularly dangerous will decide to drive, unaware that they’re within that range. If you want fewer people with a BAC of 0.14 or above on the roads, probably the best way to get there is to lower the legal limit to something like 0.05 (a point at which no one should be driving anyway). This isn’t speculation; a number of studies have observed this exact effect.

    The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine support a 0.05 BAC, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been calling for drastically lowering the limit since 2013.

    Once again, the NMA’s fringe position is at odds with reality and is more about eliminating accountability for dangerous drivers than it is about saving lives.

  25. Your position is that the police should be obstructed from holding dangerous drivers accountable whenever possible. Lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.05 would almost certainly reduce the number of 0.14+ BAC drivers that you consider to be a significant threat.

    The NMA’s script isn’t fooling anyone here. You’re a for-profit, anti-accountability fringe group with a tiny membership. You should find a more ethical hobby than working to get more people killed.

  26. I believe the difference is that your risk of a crash goes up 300%, but your risk of a fatal crash, as quoted in the article, goes up 700%. The research isn’t particularly divergent, and it all contradicts your initial contention that people who drink relatively moderately have “little or no increased risk” of being involved in a collision.

    The bottom line is that you and your fringe organization fudge the numbers whenever possible to further your anti-accountability agenda, but the researchers and safety-oriented professionals are nearly unanimous in calling out your BS. Only in the sense that they consistently contradict your claims, of course, since nobody sensible takes your little for-profit lobbying group seriously.

  27. Having worked closely for 15+ years with the command officers in the Michigan State Police responsible for traffic safety, we respectfully disagree.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  28. Our grass roots group is technically a for-profit corporation, but never makes any “profits” in the sense you mean.

    We respectfully disagree on how to achieve the most safety.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  29. Yes, I agree with the research, governmental safety organizations, engineering associations, and other professional groups, and you agree with your personal, self-serving biases.

  30. I want the scarce enforcement and prosecutorial resources concentrated toward the drivers with the highest risks – including the 0.14 drivers that involved in something like 25% of the fatals. I want so see big gains, and that comes from preventing accidents involving the very highest risk groups.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  31. I have, and we respectfully disagree on how to achieve the greatest safety gains.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  32. “One of the problems, of course, is that in so many places there is no realistic alternative to driving.”

    There are however plenty of realistic alternatives to drinking. Most notably, not drinking and drinking beverages that contain no or very low percentages of alcohol.

  33. Sure, but honestly that’s about as realistic as telling people just not to have sex to solve the problem of unwanted pregnancy. Yes, if practiced, it would work, but…

    And I’m not saying drunk driving is OK or excusable, just that the problem would be mitigated by more transportation options.

  34. The fact that so many deaths are caused by people who break the existing limit (0.08) shows a lot more is needed in terms of education and enforcement. It needs to be socially unacceptable to drink and drive.

  35. “The bigger problem is that in the US, despite Uber, you typically don’t have much of a choice but to drive.”
    Buy people *do* have a choice about whether to drink.

  36. Saving lives dude, that’s the point, but proving and prosecuting the lower limit would be more costly because accuracy of the equipment is questioned all the time, so maintaining and calibrating it would take more time no two ways about it.

  37. If saving lives is the point, then why not both? As for callibrating the equipment, these excuses get more and more ludicrous the further you dig yourself in.

  38. I agree that the most important thing to eliminate is driving.

    We have been conditioned to think that operating heavy machinery (cars) in residential areas is A-Ok, and it’s not. It’s made our neighborhoods dangerous and dead because outdoors has been transformed into race tracks and lawns.

  39. Not only does your group not care about people being killed by drunk drivers, it also doesn’t care about the harm automobiles are doing to the environment. Let the Earth overheat – the Arctic and Antarctic Ice Caps melt – consequences be damned on all fronts! Your motto – pillage and plunder!

  40. Much of rural Scandinavia has no public transport. People drink alcohol free beer or soft drinks when they go to parties or pubs and have to drive. It needs a culture change which starts buy passing and aggressively enforcing laws to save people from alcohol impaired motorists.

  41. We DON’T allow child molesters to go hang out around day care center. So we should NOT have parking lots in bars. We SHOULD NOT have parking lots any place that sells alcohol for the intent of consuming it. Because if you’re intending to consume alcohol you should NOT be driving thier in the 1st place. Duah..DO NOT provide a place to park a vehicle knowing full well that that vehicle is going to set thier while the driver is consuming alcohol.. Wake up people. We DON’T allow child molesters to hang out at day care centers. So that means we SHOULD NOT allow vehicle to be parked ware alcohol is being consumed. Other then you’re own residency ware you’ll sobar up before you drive

  42. Salt Lake City urbanist here, strongly opposed to the new lower limit. HB155 included no appropriations for transportation alternatives for drinkers and added to an already alcohol-unfriendly culture that serves to impose unnecessarily harsh penalties unseen anywhere else in the U.S. If you’re familiar with Utah’s alcohol laws at all you’re likely aware that state legislators continuously go to great lengths to unreasonably demonize alcohol which serves only to hurt tourism-and penalize responsible drinkers alongside the irresponsible ones. Obviously- I’m not advocating for drunk driving. A more reasonable bill would create harsher penalties for for repeat offenders and those caught driving above .08 BAC (Utah has surprisingly mild penalties for repeat DUI offenders). Additionally, funding should be allocated to give drinkers reasonable transportation alternatives, eg., late-night transit in dense urban areas near bars, Uber/Lyft credits given at bars, etc.

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