I hate to say I told you so. 

But, I told you so.

I told you, two years ago, that Utah’s first-in-the-nation law reducing the official drunk-driving level to a .05% blood alcohol content would have little impact on anything, other than to save some lives. Because you can’t count lives that weren’t lost, you won’t see any headlines about that one. We do know, however, that all the frantic warnings about innocent people behind bars and hits to tourism were wrong.

But really, this wasn’t a tough one to predict. The script hadn’t changed at all from 1983, when Utah was the first state to impose a .08% limit. People said back then this would only add to the state’s reputation as a weird, religious place. Tourism would suffer.

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Not only did that not happen, visits to Utah’s national parks increased, and the state’s skiing industry, a dominant cog in local tourism, saw an 80% jump in skier days between 1982 and 2014.

Oh, and economic development didn’t suffer much, either. In years when in-migration lagged, it had more to do with economic conditions than the .08% law.

This time around, the American Beverage Institute and others launched ads in Colorado, Idaho and Nevada with the intent of discouraging tourists from coming to Utah. If they did, they likely would leave with a DUI, one ad said. Another said people over 65 were just as likely to drive poorly as someone with a .05% blood-alcohol level, then listed several Utah lawmakers who, by virtue of age, should have their licenses revoked. 

That was in 2017, when the Legislature first passed the law. The effective date wasn’t until New Year’s Eve 2018, just about a year ago. But because silly, negative publicity doesn’t necessarily correlate with official starting dates, it’s fair to look at how tourism did in 2018.

The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah said it was a record year, with tourism-related spending up 6.5% over 2017, and with both national and state parks reporting record visitations.

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The top three states with visitors here were Nevada, Idaho and California. So … maybe the ads had an effect on Colorado, but I doubt it.

While it’s too early for 2019 figures, officials at the state Office of Tourism told me they just completed an intense “social listening” exercise involving 35 million social media posts over a period of three years, to see what people say about Utah and the idea of visiting here. Most of the comments were positive, especially about local nightlife. 

In an email message, Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said, “We were pleased that our brew pubs got rave reviews. We got very high ratings for locally crafted beers. Lots of posts of people enjoying a beer, and comments about great atmosphere, nightlife, etc. in Salt Lake and Ogden.  

“There were very few posts about .05 or other liquor laws.”

And what about the claim that the law would lead to more arrests, particularly of people who aren’t really impaired? 

Sgt. Nick Street of the Utah Highway Patrol told me preliminary indications are that arrests in the .05 to .079 range actually dropped last year as a percentage of the whole. In 2017, 7% of DUI arrests fell into that category (cops already were arresting drivers under 21 at any blood-alcohol level, as well as people under prior arrest restrictions or who were just driving nutty). 

In 2019, the trend through the first three quarters was for only 4% of arrests in that category.

Really, though, this never was about harassing social drinkers or getting people to consume less alcohol. It was about changing the culture. 

Because my wife is Swedish, I’ve spent considerable time there. It’s a country with a robust tradition of alcohol consumption and with a .02% blood-alcohol limit. That law has changed the culture. People still drink just as much. They just understand that drinking, at any level, doesn’t go with driving.

And, contrary to another popular argument I hear, public transit isn’t plentiful in a lot of the small or midsized cities there. People just make other arrangements.

The idea, then, is to separate drinking and driving in the minds of all people. The .05% law is a good start.

Here’s a prediction: Other states eventually will follow Utah’s lead.

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That’s what happened with Utah’s .08% law all those years ago. 

In 1997, when that push was underway nationally, the National Beverage Institute published an op-ed that said, “We might as well live in Tehran.”

Well … as the events of recent days have made clear, that hasn’t happened, either.

Told you so.

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