Lowering the legal limit in Utah is only the beginning of coming crackdown

By Sarah Longwell

Utah has officially become the first state in the country to lower the blood-alcohol arrest level from .08 to .05 and more states will certainly follow.

While such a move is unlikely to save lives, it will inflict serious damage on restaurants and others in the hospitality and tourism industries by criminalizing perfectly responsible behavior. Why would someone interested in a ski vacation choose Utah over Colorado or Montana if they fear being arrested for having a single drink after a day on the slopes before driving back to their hotel?

Utah has a unique relationship with alcohol, namely that a majority of its residents have never had a drink. Restaurants that serve alcohol in Utah have been subjected to odd regulations such as the “Zion Curtain” which mandates that bartenders must mix drinks out of sight and away from patrons. It was also the first state to lower its legal limit from .10 to .08 back in 1983.

It is for exactly this reason that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — the main advocate for lower legal limits — identified Utah as the most attractive laboratory for its lower legal limit experiment. If a wide majority of people in the state don’t drink, then they have neither a reason to oppose a lower limit, nor perspective on the relative impairment of .05 versus .08 versus .15. That makes it easy for the NTSB to argue that one is significantly impaired at .05, even though the evidence does not support its claim.

In fact, it was a University of Utah driving simulation study that showed a driver is more impaired talking on a hands-free cell phone than driving at the current legal limit of .08. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 70 percent of Americans admit to driving while talking on a cell phone. And yet, Utah is going to start arresting people for behavior that impairs them far less than this ubiquitous and socially acceptable behavior.

And who will they be arresting? A 120-pound woman can reach .05 after little more than a single drink. If she drives, despite the absence of real impairment, she will be subject to jail time, fines, increased insurance costs, license suspension, and an ignition interlock. Not to mention the social stigma.

It is because .05 laws defy both science and common sense that the largest anti-drunk driving advocacy organization in the country, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), has declined to support efforts to further lower the limit.

Advocates of .05 routinely point to Europe as an example the United States should follow. All European countries have a limit of .05 or lower. But one critical distinction is these countries have much lower drinking ages than we do in the States. The U.S. is one of only 11 countries, including Iraq and Oman, that have a minimum drinking age of 21. Most European countries with a .05 legal limit also have minimum drinking ages between 16 and 18 years old.

Rather than examining a European model not commensurable with traffic safety in the U.S., let’s understand the nature of alcohol-related fatalities occurring on American roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, nearly 70 percent of alcohol related traffic fatalities happen at a .15 BAC or above. The average BAC of someone in an alcohol-related fatal crash is .19 — almost quadruple the new .05 arrest level in Utah. That’s nearly eight drinks in an hour for a 160-pound man. Conversely, only 1 percent of highway fatalities occur between the disputed interval of .05 and .08, making dubious any claim that a lower limit would save thousands of lives.

Hard-core drunk drivers are responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related carnage on our roads, and common sense should dictate that our anti-drunk driving policies focus on this cohort rather than a woman having a glass of wine with dinner.

It’s a mistake repeated over and over again by those in the traffic safety community — targeting moderate social drinkers with more restrictive laws instead of the heavily impaired. It’s the reason that drunk-driving fatalities have stubbornly remained around 30 percent of overall traffic fatalities for the past 20 years, even after lowering the legal limit to .08.

If we want to save lives on our roads—and we all do—we should focus on solutions that target the real problem. Utah already went off the cliff, but this time around, the rest of the country should resist following its lead.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.


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