Utah has never been a drinker’s paradise. Most residents belong to the Mormon Church, which forbids the use of alcohol, and the state has notoriously strict liquor laws. Beer on tap at a bar, for example, can have no more than 4 percent alcohol by volume. So it’s no surprise that the Beehive State could be the first to adopt a DUI standard tougher than the current norm.
State Rep. Norman Thurston has introduced a bill to lower the legal blood-alcohol content for drunken driving from the current .08 percent to .05 percent.
“Impairment starts with the first drink,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and we want to establish this state as one where you simply do not drink and drive.” Note: not one where you don’t get drunk and drive, but where you don’t drink at all before driving.
Under the current limit, a 160-pound man needs about four drinks in an hour to qualify as under the influence. Under the lower one, two could be enough to bring a DUI charge. A 100-pound woman could hit the limit with a single glass of wine. Small wonder that the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants, argues that the change would mean “criminalizing perfectly responsible behavior.”
It’s true that every drink raises the risk of impairment and accidents. At .05, says the National Transportation Safety Board, the risk of a crash is 38 percent higher than at zero. But that pales next to the risk at .08, which is 169 percent higher. From an enforcement point of view, each reduction in the BAC limit yields less and less in the way of greater safety.
If law enforcement resources were infinite, the change might be sensible. But the funds and personnel used to crack down on these motorists are not available for other measures that could provide more bang for the buck.
The advocates are confident the change would make a big difference. The NTSB contends that lowering the standard to .05 “changes the drink-driving behavior of drivers at all BAC levels” because of its “broad deterrent effect.” Put another way, it would scare people — including the mildest of tipplers, who already stay under .05 — to drink less. You could call that a deterrent effect or deliberate intimidation of law-abiding drivers. Either way, it would inhibit a lot of people who pose no real risk on the roads.
It’s worth noting that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has declined to endorse the stricter rule, preferring to focus on better ways to assure compliance with the existing one. High on the group’s list of priorities is requiring all first-time DUI offenders to be barred from driving unless they install interlock devices that prevent their cars from starting if an in-car Breathalyzer determines they’ve been drinking.
Frank Harris, head of governmental affairs for the Utah chapter of MADD, told CNN, “We believe we can save more lives” that way than with the .05 standard.
Arresting and convicting drunken drivers is of limited utility if the offenders go back to driving drunk — as most will do if they get the chance, according to MADD’s research. The key is to catch them and prevent them from reverting to their dangerous habits.
So far, 28 states and the District of Columbia have attacked the problem by requiring interlocks for anyone convicted of DUI — with heartening results. A study published in the American Journal for Public Health estimated that states with such mandates cut their alcohol-related traffic deaths by 15 percent compared to the other states.
This approach is a proven success in this country. And it has another virtue, compared to lowering the permissible BAC: It inconveniences the guilty rather than the innocent.