Various voices are urging Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill that would lower the state’s legal blood alcohol limit for driving to .05 percent, which would be the strictest in the land. The governor should ignore them and sign the bill.
This is, plain and simple, a matter of public safety backed by sound data. The voices against the bill, most notably the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association and Ski Utah, complain the lower limit would hurt tourism.
Instead, what ought to inspire public outrage is the cavalier attitude that exists nationwide toward drunk driving. The .08 percent limit that has become standard in all states allows for an unacceptable level of impairment and is out of step with much of the rest of the industrialized world.
In Europe, many countries have legal limits stricter than .05 percent, despite a cultural acceptance of drinking that makes alcohol more prevalent than in many parts of the United States. Sweden and Norway have limits of .02 percent, and recent media reports show this has instilled a general feeling among the public that responsible drinkers do not sit behind the wheel no matter how little they have consumed. This hasn’t hurt consumption. It may have enriched taxis and ride share companies.
A growing body of data supports a stricter limit. A recent study by the Schools of Public Health and Medicine found a robust correlation between restrictive state alcohol policies and lower rates of drunk driving. Researchers examined things such as alcohol taxes and the frequency of sobriety checkpoints and discovered that for every 1 percent increase in restrictive policies, impaired driving also fell by 1 percent.
The study did not examine the possible effects of a stricter blood-alcohol limit, but it would be logical to assume a similar correlation.
More recently, a study published in the journal of Pediatrics found a correlation between tough state laws and fewer deaths of children and teenagers. While Utah already has a .02 percent limit for drivers under the age of 21, the study noted that 80 percent of the young people who died in crashes during the study period were passengers in cars driven by adults.
Utah’s new law may not even make the state a pioneer. Other states are considering .05 percent, and their laws may take effect before Utah’s law, which would become enforceable on Dec. 30, 2018.
There is some movement nationwide toward a .05 percent limit, fueled by research, the rest of the world's limit and the urgings of the National Transportation Safety Board. The board said 500 to 800 deaths would be prevented nationwide by lowering the limit.
Some are convinced they can drive unimpaired at between .05 and .07 percent blood alcohol levels. But a lower limit sends a strong message statewide that alcohol and driving don’t mix. And that change in attitude and culture will itself save lives.
Those arguing against the bill sound hollow in the wake of the evidence. Their concerns about profits and tourism are misguided and, most likely, incorrect.
This is one bill the governor ought to sign with confidence.