Lawmaker proposes making Utah first state to lower alcohol limit to 0.05


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A Provo lawmaker wants to make Utah the first state in the country to lower its legal limit for driving under the influence to a 0.05 percent blood-alcohol content — a level the average male drinker could reach at three drinks and at which a female could be considered drunk after two.

Republican Rep. Norm Thurston contends that impairment begins at the first drink and points to numerous countries in Europe and Asia — nations like Australia, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, China and India — that have a 0.05 legal limit.

“Utah can lead the way as the first state to lower the legal limit to 0.05 for the general population,” Thurston said. “This will make it more clear that drinking and driving is not acceptable. Furthermore, implementing this new standard can be done with minimal disruption to current law-enforcement procedures, making this a win-win for the safety of Utahns on the road.”

Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board once again included lowering the legal limit on its list of reforms that it said were most needed, citing studies that show that the risk of a crash doubles by the time a driver’s blood alcohol reaches 0.08 percent.

Ken Wallentine, vice chairman of the Law Enforcement Legislative Committee, a group made up of several law-enforcement associations around the state, said that, while the idea of lowering the limit has been around for a while, no state has jumped on it and his group has not taken a formal position on it.

“This is a watershed proposal, but from an enforcement perspective, there are challenges,” he said. Discerning between someone who is driving poorly versus someone who is over the limit of 0.05 will be more difficult for an officer.

Wallentine also noted that the lower fatality rates in Europe may be due to more frequent sobriety checkpoints than in the United States. “When we say it’s worked in other countries, let’s not forget their enforcement strategies are far different,” he said.

The national chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving has not lent its support to the lower alcohol limit, arguing that it is unrealistic, unlikely to be enforced, and other measures could have a greater impact in reducing drunken driving.

Utah already has lower limits for commercial truck drivers — who have a 0.04 percent limit — and young drivers who are not allowed to have any alcohol in their system until they are 21 years old. On average, between 2013 and 2015, there were about 500 DUI arrests a year in Utah of drivers whose blood-alcohol content was under 0.08.

Scott Beck, president of Visit Salt Lake, has worked in recent years to change Utah’s liquor laws to help improve the perception that the state is unfriendly to out-of-towners who want a drink. But he said lowering the blood-alcohol level would likely not be detrimental to the state’s tourism image.

It could even be a part of a trade-off that would help do away with other troublesome liquor laws like the Zion Curtain — a barrier restaurants must have to hide the preparation of drinks from underage patrons — or restrictions that prohibit customers from taking a drink from a hotel bar to their room, or that require restaurant patrons to declare an “intent to dine” before ordering a drink.

“We’re hopeful in the larger strategy to address some of our quirky liquor laws that this may be a path forward,” he said. “I think, for the most part, this would be perceived as a positive move, because drunk driving is illegal.”

Beck said that, at its core, the alcohol limits are a law-enforcement issue and “we really look to law enforcement to guide us.”

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