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UHP issues holiday reminder to not drive while impaired by drink or drugs

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Forensic toxicologist Nghia Nguyen works with blood samples that could possibly contain cocaine at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Utah Highway Patrol wants people to have a good time this holiday season at Christmas parties, family get-togethers and New Year's Eve celebrations.

But if you're going to drink, be responsible, plan ahead and make arrangements for someone else to drive.

On Wednesday, the UHP issued its annual reminder for drivers not to drink and drive during the holidays while adding that troopers will be working overtime DUI shifts from now until Jan. 1 looking for impaired drivers. But in addition to drinking, UHP Sgt. Jared Cornia says Utah, like the rest of the nation, is seeing an increase in crashes caused by drivers who are impaired by drugs.

The most common substances found in DUI arrests after alcohol include marijuana, opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl, stimulants such as cocaine and meth, and sedatives such as antidepressant drugs and drugs to treat panic disorders, according to the UHP.

According to the Utah Public Health Laboratory, in more than half of the toxicology tests conducted on people arrested for investigation of DUI this year and last, drugs were found in a person's system in addition to alcohol.


Urine samples are pictured at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As of Tuesday, the UHP had recorded 290 fatal crashes resulting in 312 deaths in 2022, with 43 of those involving alcohol. Last year there were 293 crashes that resulted in 328 deaths with alcohol being a factor in 61 of those deaths, according to the UHP. There were a total of 918 alcohol-related crashes in 2021 compared to 818 in 2022 as of Tuesday.

The average blood alcohol level of a person arrested for DUI in Utah this year has been 0.14%, according to UHP statistics, or nearly three times the legal limit. The highest blood alcohol content recorded by troopers in 2022 through Tuesday was 0.46% — more than nine times the limit.

Even though crash numbers and DUI arrest numbers are similar from this year to last year, Cornia says the switch to a 0.05% blood alcohol limit in 2019 has made a difference.

"We're seeing a change in people's behaviors. Prior to the 0.05 change I could go out and work a DUI overtime shift and I could stop three or four cars and I could find a DUI. Now I have to stop 20 to 25 cars to find that same DUI because people are being more responsible in their decisions. And that's the ultimate goal, to change people's behaviors, to separate the tasks of drinking from driving," he said.

One problem troopers still see is drivers who may have been responsible and got a ride after they were drinking, but then try to drive again themselves a few hours later.

"That's the biggest thing we see is people's overconfidence. (They say) 'Hey, I feel better now. I feel different than I did before. I'm not as impaired as I was before.' But you're still impaired. So make sure that if you feel different at all that you're planning ahead," said Matt Slawson, chief forensic toxicologist at the Utah Public Health Lab.

On average, a person's blood alcohol level drops between 0.15% and 0.20% every hour after a person stops drinking. But both Slawson and Cornia encourage the public not to rely on math to figure out if they're OK to drive.

"I think the bottom line is don't make assumptions and don't do math in your head to determine whether or not you're sober or not. Because regardless of a number in your bloodstream it doesn't mean you're not impaired," Slawson said.

"If you're feeling any different at all, then we encourage you to plan ahead. If you feel different, you're going to drive different," Cornia added. "Even if you feel like you're OK, you're probably not. If you're feeling buzzed or feeling a little bit high, then please don't drive."

The Utah Highway Safety Office has funded a toxicology position at the Utah Public Health Lab to specifically focus on DUI arrest cases for the past two years.