With some of the nation’s strictest alcohol laws already on the books, Utah doubles down by lowering the threshold for motorists that can be charged with driving while under the influence.
On December 30, 2018, HB155 went into effect, decreasing the legal blood alcohol level (BAC) for drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
What Factors Affect Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)?
To get a picture of what exactly that looks like, a 160-pound man can reach 0.05 BAC with just three alcoholic drinks consumed in less than an hour.
For women, it can take even fewer drinks in the same time to reach Utah’s new legal limit for being intoxicated behind the wheel.
Alcohol affects each person differently, and some of the factors that determine blood alcohol content include:
- Rate of consumption
- Amount of food eaten before or during drinking
- Strength of the drinks
- Mixing medications while drinking
- Amount of body fat or muscle
- Alcohol tolerance
- Health conditions
“Policymakers in other states should follow Utah’s lead to reduce alcohol-related deaths and Congress should incentivize these changes,” writes Stephanie Morain, an assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College.
She is also the lead author on a study about the ethics of changing the national BAC standard.
Morain and others, like the bill’s sponsor, Utah State Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican, point to the still dire drinking and driving related statistics.
Drinking and Driving Statistics
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), some of these stats include the following:
- Nationwide, people drive while intoxicated around 300,000 times a day, but only an estimated 2,800 arrests for DUI are made
- Up to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on suspended licenses
- Around 800 people a day are injured in alcohol-related car crashes
- 15 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes during the week were drunk, compared to 28 percent on weekends (data from 2017)
- Two out of every three people, on average, will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime
- 10,874 people, in 2017, died as a result of alcohol-related crashes. That’s one person every 48 minutes
Arguments For and Against Changing the Legal Drinking and Driving Limit
There are, of course, critics of Utah’s BAC legislation that feel the new law infringes on a people’s individual freedoms and that the state is criminalizing even moderate, responsible alcoholic consumption.
Advocates of the 0.05 BAC, however, aren’t buying that argument.
“A person can still drink as much as they want, just not get behind the wheel,” Morain said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Our society has made it increasingly easy to find a safe ride home through ride-share applications and other resources.”
Sgt. Nick Street with the Utah Highway Patrol told NPR that he’s already seen a change in drunk driving behavior due in part to ride-share apps, like Lyft and Uber.
“I think people are making better decisions on the front end of a night,” Street said.
Another key statistic, according to MADD, is that about a third of drivers convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders.
Continued DUI violations or alcohol associated run-ins with law enforcement is a strong indication that a person might be struggling with alcohol dependence or is need of alcohol rehab for alcoholism.
Under age drinkers, 16 to 20 years old are particularly susceptible to DUI incidents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that under age drinkers are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash when they have a BAC of 0.08 percent than when they have not had a drink.
Utah Leads the Charge Against Drinking and Driving
Utah is taking action to reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities that occur behind the wheel.
It’s not the first time the state has led the charge either.
In 1983, Utah became the first state to reduce the legal limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08, a move that took about 20 years for every other state to follow.
By the time the legal limit had been reduced across the country, traffic deaths due to driving under the influence of alcohol had decreased by 10 percent.
Delaware, Hawaii, New York, and Washington state have all considered lowering the legal drinking and driving limit in the past, but to date, none of them have implemented it.
Whether or not states will be quicker to follow Utah’s latest move is yet to be seen, but at least the bill’s sponsor has a very clear view of the new law.
“People have a fundamental right to freedom and liberty,” Rep. Thurston said in an interview, “until it starts to affect the health, safety and welfare of people around you.”