SALT LAKE CITY — A bill making Utah's legal alcohol limit the lowest in the nation is one step closer to becoming law Wednesday after a Senate committee voted 4-2 to advance it following nearly two hours of testimony.
HB155, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, has already passed the House, meaning it would be headed to the governor's office for his action if it passes the Senate without changes on the floor.
The bill would lower the legal blood-alcohol level for drivers in Utah from .08 percent to .05 percent, the standard in many countries around the world.
Gov. Gary Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said the governor's office will be "looking at it closely."
"I think we're pretty impressed with the kind of evidence-based approach to this legislation," Edwards said. "It's about really changing culture in having people think very carefully about the decision to drink and drive."
He said his understanding is the legislation "really doesn't make a big difference in terms of enforcement, but it could make a big difference in terms of the lives saved."
The Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee sent the bill to the full Senate with the two Democratic members opposed, Sens. Jim Dabakis of Salt Lake City and Karen Mayne of West Valley City.
The bill "supposedly criminalizes responsible drinkers," Thurston said. "We're not criminalizing responsible drinkers because responsible drinkers don't get to .05 and then drive."
He said the proposed law would not alter how drunken driving is enforced but "works because of the messaging and the broad deterrent effect. … People will, in fact, be less likely to drink and drive, and that's how it saves lives."
National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairwoman Bella Dinh-Zarr cited a study predicting the lower the rate could save 11 percent of the lives lost in alcohol-related traffic accidents, including the 60 that occur in Utah annually.
Nationally, she said the study showed 1,790 lives would be spared every year, based on the impact of previously reducing the blood-alcohol level from .10 to .08 across the country between 1982 and 2014.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, a member of the committee and the Senate sponsor of the bill, cited protests over American troops killed in Afghanistan but said less attention is paid to a larger number of drunken driving-related deaths.
Adams said if as many troops had perished, "we would have had riots around the nation. But it is dumbfounding to me that we can have (the equivalent of) a 747 crashing every week … and we can't come to grips with zero fatalities."
Dabakis said he's concerned about the effect being the first state in the country to pass the lower limit would have on Utah's economic development and tourism efforts.
"There is, like or not, a weirdness factor in Utah," the former Utah Democratic Party chairman said. "Is it worth paying the price to be the pioneer?"
He suggested the state wait for other states to lower the limit and gauge the impact.
Thurston said the bill would not take effect until next year, and at least two other states — Hawaii and Washington — are considering lowering the limit. He said the effective date of the bill could always be changed.
Mayne said she is hearing from constituents that they don't want the lower limit.
"One said, 'We've have enough nanny nanny,'" she said, adding that she believes "we have really strong liquor laws here. We all have voted for those and want those in place," but she questions telling those she represents that lawmakers know better.
The committee also heard public testimony for and against the bill before the vote.