Utah's new DUI law, strictest in the nation, set to be implemented ahead of New Year's Eve
Utah is set to implement the strictest DUI law in the nation – just in time for New Year’s.
The new law, which takes effect on Dec. 30, lowers the blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit to .05 from .08 – the national limit imposed by former President Bill Clinton.
DUI punishments can vary by state. Utah’s new law says anyone who “operates a motor vehicle in a negligent manner causing the death of another” will have committed a criminal homicide, which is a felony.
The state legislature approved the change in 2017 before it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
“That’s the mandate to law enforcement: You see someone driving impaired, you pull them over,” Herbert said earlier this year. “We’re not saying people can’t drink. You can certainly drink, and you can drink until your eyes bug out if you want. We’re just saying don’t’ drive and drink.”
A BAC of .05 percent typically results in about three alcoholic drinks for a 160-pound man, according to the CDC. Effects can include lowered alertness, exaggerated behavior and a “usually good feeling,” the CDC said. As for driving, people with a .05 percent BAC could have reduced coordination or difficulty steering.
The Cleveland Clinic has a BAC calculator for people to input their weight and amount of alcohol ingested.
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Already, Utah has seen an uptick in people relying on ride-share programs, according to Highway Patrol Lt. Col. Mark Zesiger. He told The Salt Lake Tribune many people didn’t realize the law had a delayed implementation and assumed it went into effect immediately after the state legislature approved it.
“Our DUI squad definitely saw right after the law was passed an increase in the number of people who were using ride-share programs,” Zesiger said. “That’s a good thing; we’ll take that.”
Law enforcement officials are instructed to “make arrests based on observed impairment” rather than a “predetermined BAC level,” according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.
Zesiger said all officers have been retrained in field sobriety “to make sure ... they do meets standards.”
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According to the state’s public safety department, 54,402 arrests were made in the past five years for DUI infractions – an average of 29.8 arrests per day.
Nearly 10,500 people died in 2016 from alcohol-impaired driving crashes in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“When we look at the fatal crashes, if you have between .05 and .79 [BAC], you’re seven times more likely to be in a fatal crash,” Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chair of the National Transportation Safety Board has said.
But the American Beverage Institute isn’t on board with the new law, calling it an “attack on the restaurant and hospitality industries.”
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“I have no doubt that proponents of .05 laws are well-intentioned, but good intentions don’t necessarily yield good public policy,” spokesman Jackson Shedelbower said in a statement.
“Instead of targeting moderate and responsible drinkers, as this .05 law does, limited traffic safety resources should be focused on the high-BAC and repeat drunk driving offenders responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities,” he continued. “That way, the roads actually become safer and those who enjoy a drink or two over dinner before driving are not labeled criminals.”
Shedelbower said it’s understandable that Utah is the first state to implement a .05 BAC law since “many Utahns entirely refrain from alcohol consumption for religious reasons, and therefore, lack a full understanding of its effects.” Utah does heavily regulate alcohol, from what can be brought into the state to how much alcohol content can be found in beer.
While Utah is the first state to implement such a law, it isn’t the only to consider it. Earlier this year, Delaware lawmakers introduced a bill to lower the threshold. Hawaii and Washington, too, have considered such measures.