Utah takes toughest in nation stance on drunk driving

March 27, 2017

By lowering the minimum threshold of what it calls drunk driving, Utah will become the strictest state when it comes to getting behind the wheel after a drink or three—and it may not be the last. 

Last week, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert signed into law a measure that redefines the state's definition of drunk driving from a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 to .05. The law will take effect at the close of 2018.

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The new legislation means that a 160-pound man will likely be over the limit after three alcoholic drinks in an hour, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 137-pound woman will, on average, hit .05 after just two drinks in the same period. 

The new law has drawn disdain from the American Beverage Institute, which took out a two-page ad in both of Salt Lake City's newspapers opposing the legislation and told NPR that a driver at .05 "is less impaired than a driver talking hands-free on a cell phone." 

The lobbying group warned that diners and tourists may avoid the state over fears of inadvertently combining too much alcohol with driving.  

It's possible that the state could make several tweaks to the legislation prior to its implementation at the end of next year, reported The Salt Lake Tribune 

"I don't believe, for example, that this legislation is finished," Herbert told reporters. "There are some areas of improvement I think are warranted and are necessary."

Herbert says he is planning a special session later this year to go over potential changes to the legislation before it takes effect on December 31, 2018.

This latest change is not the first time that Utah has pioneered a stricter drunk driving rule; in 1983, it, along with Oregon, became the first to implement the .08 standard currently followed by all 50 states. 

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It's far cry from the .15 BAC limit once legal across the country, but it also puts Utah in line with much of Western Europe. 

The change could also open the doors for other states to follow suit. Washington and Hawaii have both floated a .05 BAC level in recent years, but neither adopted the lower threshold.

Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board has been advocating states to drop from .08 to .05 for several years, citing concerns that .08 is too lenient. The federal government has left it up to each state to define impaired driving, but less than two decades ago it threatened to pull highway funding from dozens of states that then had a .10 BAC threshold. 

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