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MADD leader praises Utah's .05 alcohol limit to National Governors Association

Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, holds a picture of her daughter, Helen Marie, who was killed by a teenage driver impaired by alcohol and marijuana in 2000.
Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, holds a picture of her daughter, Helen Marie, who was killed by a teenage driver impaired by alcohol and marijuana in 2000.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving

SALT LAKE CITY — For Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Friday's discussion at the National Governors Association's summer meeting about the need to make roads safer was personal.

"I know that pain," Witty told governors from around the country about the effect of losing her 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie, in 2000 to a teenage driver impaired by alcohol and marijuana.

Her daughter was rollerblading, Witty said, when she "looked up and saw a car spinning on that bike path and there was nothing she could do but die. That's what we want to stop."

She was applauded after telling her story to the hushed audience in the Grand America Hotel ballroom on the final day of the three-day meeting that brought some 25 governors to the state.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called drunk and drugged driving "an important and emotional issue" and highlighted Utah's toughest-in-the-nation .05 percent blood alcohol content limit for legally driving that took effect at the end of 2018.

"Sometimes, it's how we define impaired that's where we end up having some problem," Herbert said, noting the decision by the Utah Legislature to reduce the legal limit from .08 percent "was not without controversy."

The law was the subject of a well-publicized advertising campaign in surrounding states by the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Institute aimed at discouraging tourists from coming to Utah.

"It's probably too early to say whether we are going to be successful with the outcome," Herbert said. "But at least our DUIs are down right now, so it's having an effect. It appears more people are getting on board" with not drinking and driving.

When the governor asked whether other states may follow Utah's lead, Witty thanked him for his leadership on lowering the legal limit and urged other states to look at doing the same.

"Impairment is impairment and .05 is impairment. The data is there now," she said, citing recent conversations with leaders in Michigan, New York and California about lower limits.

"We're hoping that this will happen," Witty said. "Let's get this conversation going."

Another panelist for the "Driving the Conversation: Safer and Smarter Roadways," Grant Baldwin, a director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said adopting the .05 limit nationwide would have a significant impact.

A federal study found that it would save between 600 and 1,200 lives, prevent just under 50,000 injuries and have a direct cost benefit of some $34 million, he said.

"These are real numbers, real lives, real people named Helen Marie, whose lives would be saved if every state had .05, just to put the benefit in context from the CDC's support," Baldwin said.

Technology also came up during the discussion, including Witty's call for a passive system being developed that would detect impairment through touch or breath and automatically prevent a car from being started.

"How about having that as a standard safety feature in all new cars?" she asked, noting the technology could be on the market in the next few years rather than the decades it may take for autonomous cars to be a viable alternative.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum suggested the timeline for driverless vehicles should be speeded up because "we're killing a plane crash a day, day in and day out" due almost entirely to human error on the roads.

"Autonomous vehicles represent an opportunity to be better than humans," Burgum said, but are being held "to a standard of perfection, where, if there's a single death, then there's a hue and cry, 'Let's get all the autonomous vehicles off the road.'"

The reaction should be the opposite, he said.

"If autonomous vehicles killed only half as many people as humans, I think we should all be cheering for autonomous vehicles because we'd be saving 20,000 lives a year," Burgum said.

Brian Barnard, a senior adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said determining how safe autonomous vehicles have to be is one of the toughest issues surrounding the new technology.

"A lot of people would say it needs to be at least as safe as a human driver," Barnard said. "When we have over 37,000 fatalities on the roadways right now, do we think human drivers really should be that standard? I think that's debatable."

He said the focus needs to be on improving driver behavior, because even if autonomous vehicles were ready to hit the road today, the average lifespan for cars is 12 years so there would still be plenty of humans behind the wheel.

Arizona Gov. Doug Docey questioned how changing attitudes toward marijuana contribute to impaired driving. Arizona had previously defeated an attempt to legalize recreational marijuana use, but a new initiative is in the works.

"It's a challenge," Witty said. MADD opposes using marijuana and driving, but has not taken a stand against its use, although she said it is "definitely dangerous for young people."

With some 68 percent of Americans living in states where recreational or medical marijuana is legal, Baldwin pointed out it's "really concerning" that there is no test that police officers can use to detect impairment by the drug.

Herbert also raised another issue with driver impairment — distractions.

"I'm just totally sick and tired of people driving on the road, talking on their cellphones, looking in the mirror and fixing their hair, eating a hamburger," he said. "Distracted driving is a big issue for us."