Bill lowering legal blood alcohol content limit passes first hurdle

Alcoholic drink and car keys, stock image | St. George News

ST. GEORGE  A bill that would make Utah the first state in the nation to lower its blood alcohol content level from 0.08 to 0.05 survived its first hurdle in the Utah Legislature by passing a House committee Friday.

Sponsored by Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, The Driving Under The Influence And Public Safety Revisions, designated as House Bill 155 in the 2017 legislative session, was reviewed by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and passed with a 9-2 vote last week. It now moves to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives.

Presenting the case for passing the legislation with Thurston was Della Dinh-Zarr, vice-chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Adopting a 0.05 or lower blood alcohol content, or BAC limit, in every state is among the safety board’s top 10 most wanted priorities, Dinh-Zarr told the committee.

“When I usually visit a state, it’s sometimes because a tragedy has occurred,” Dinh-Zarr said. “So I’m very glad to be here today in Utah in support of a solution that can prevent tragedies before they happen, and that solution is having a 0.05 BAC limit.”

The 0.05 limit translates to three beers for the average man and two beers for the average woman.

The state’s current BAC limit is 0.08, but people with BAC levels between 0.05 to 0.079 can still be impaired, Dinh-Zarr said. People within those levels are seven times as likely to get into a fatal single-driver crash as non-impaired drivers, she said.

The general idea is to change behavior so drinking and driving are largely separate concepts in the minds of those who choose to imbibe in alcoholic libations.

“I’m not here to stop people from drinking,” Dinh-Zarr said. “I’m here today to stop people from dying.”

If a nationwide 0.05 BAC limit was observed by all the states, it could save 1,800 lives annually, Binh-Zarr, said, which translates into an 11 percent decrease in alcohol-related deaths. The NTSB has advocated for lowering BAC limits to 0.05 or less since 2013.

Counties in Europe and Asia observe a BAC limit of 0.05 percent, which Thurston referred to as the “international standard.” Some countries have a BAC limit of 0.0.

“Although people in those countries continue to drink more per capita than people in the U.S., there are fewer deaths on the roads,” Dinh-Zarr said. “They drink more, and yet they die less because of a 0.05 BAC.”

Among the voices of opposition to the bill was Sean Druyon of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Lowering the state’s BAC limit could create undo hardships for an increased amount of individuals, Druyon said, and doesn’t meet a needed balance between personal freedoms and protecting the community.

The hardship Druyon referred to takes the form of someone potentially losing their license for 120 days, which in turn could lead to a loss of employment. This would make it hard for an individual to support him or herself, let alone a family, he said.

First-time offenders and individuals who are not actually impaired could be swept up in the law to negative affect as well, Druyon said.

For most first-time offenders, it’s a wake up call,” he said. “They don’t know they’re even impaired to the point that they can’t operate their vehicle. They see the BAC. It’s slightly over 0.08. It gives them an opportunity, if they get an impaired driving, to save their job, save their driver’s license.”

The new law may also negatively impact the state’s tourism industry, Druyon said, as people may choose to visit other destinations where the drinking laws aren’t as strict.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, took issue with Druyon’s words in a short yet combative exchange.

“You talk about people who lose their jobs, well I lost my grandfather,” Ray said. “I’d much rather some SOB who’s drinking lose his job than somebody have to lose a father, a grandfather or a child. Also you seem to put tourism over life. To me, life is more important than tourism money.”

Michael Melendez of the Libertas Institute, a nonprofit libertarian think-tank, said the institute opposes the bill because Libertas believes that punitive measures, citations and potential incarceration should only be applied when someone is actually harmed.

A single car wreck at 800 East and 100 South by Dixie State University results in the arrest of the driver for alleged DUI and running from police, among other offenses, St. George, Utah, Feb. 16, 2016 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, said Monday that though he has yet to examine the proposed legislation in detail, he is generally in favor of measures intended to keep impaired individuals off the streets.

As a former prosecuting attorney, Snow said he also wants to research what the potential impacts on law enforcement could be, as well as what the legal implications of the law could be before committing to supporting it or otherwise.

Snow is not a member of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and therefore was not present when the bill passed out of the committee.

Thurston said the bill doesn’t change how police respond to suspected impairments and DUIs. While an increase in potential arrests may rise if the new law passes, Thurston said, the increase would be less than expected.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the lower BAC limit would go into effect Dec. 30, 2018.

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

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12 Comments

  • great success February 14, 2017 at 10:09 am

    That’s right Utah. Criminalize one substance because of the word of wisdom mormon doctrine, and on the other hand load up on prescription pain meds!!! That’s the good old mormon way. It’s all fine in the eyes of the divine when a doctor prescribes it. Keep the temple recommend and feel the euphoric effects of opioids!! Great Success.

    PS. Oh and cannibis, the gateway drug, is far worse than actual drugs. So throw that out the window for people mananging long term pain. Makes much more sense to take opioids long term!!!! Great Success.

    • DesertBill February 14, 2017 at 4:40 pm

      Maybe instead of seizing any opportunity to bash the Mormons, you ought to step back and consider the horrific consequences when someone under the influence maims or takes someone’s life. And I agree with the others. Clamp down on cell phone usage and texting just as hard.

      • biker11 February 16, 2017 at 9:51 am

        Desert Bill, Great Success is correct. The question is why do You consider the truth bashing? Don’t want to admit there is a problem do you?
        Lets see Utah ELIMINATE all state liquor stores, they are making a tidy profit on alcohol. Many people are under the influence of prescription drugs and kill people. What is being done about that in Utah, NOTHING. Because they have a huge lobby(PAYOFFS).

        This proposal is Garbage, makes average people criminals, we have enough freedoms taken away from us.

  • Henry February 14, 2017 at 10:20 am

    A bigger issue that needs to be addressed is cell phone usage and texting by drivers. EVERY DAY when we’re driving in town, we count at least 4-5 drivers with a smart phone in their hand.

  • Mike February 14, 2017 at 11:13 am

    What!? This shouldn’t be necessary because I can’t watch the bartender pour the alcohol. I can’t buy a beer without buying food. I can only buy 3.2 Bud Lite at the market. With all the protection already in place, shouldn’t we all be safe?

    • Real Life February 14, 2017 at 2:35 pm

      Nope. The Mo’s are gonna save you from yourself.

      • .... February 15, 2017 at 12:24 am

        If you had a job you wouldn’t of been here making another stupid comment

        • Real Life February 15, 2017 at 6:30 am

          That’s clever. Where do you get your material? Hmmmmm. 12:24am. We all know who is in need of a job.

  • DesertBill February 14, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    … and maybe the life of someone’s mother, child, brother and so on.

    • Real Life February 15, 2017 at 6:32 am

      You’ve got bigger things to worry about on the road than a driver who has had one beer. You might know this if you had one beer.

  • NickDanger February 14, 2017 at 10:04 pm

    The problem I see here is that we have an excellent DWI law already in place. .08 is not very high, 4 or 5 beers over a couple of hours (which is what most non-alcoholics would probably consider an evening of “drinking), and you’re there. Whether or not this is “impaired” is a subject I can’t address because I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the people who are experts agreed on .08 across-the-board as the point between drunk and sober.

    All this new proposal accomplishes is allowing police to target those who are already using good judgment and discretion – people who are not letting themselves drive at that level of drinking. Rep. Norman Thurston is clearly making a grab for votes from his overwhelmingly Mormon constituency in Provo.

    I say let Provo make their own laws if that’s the way they want it, this proposal doesn’t help anyone. The article throws some UNATTRIBUTED numbers out there about people who are driving between .05 and .079, but it sounds like standard rhetorical hyperbole to me.

  • high5 March 5, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    Such a Sad waist of Legislation Time n Energy
    Should be Focusing on Madicinal Cannabis Legalization ! NOW!!!!!! You poor Pencil Head do Not Speak For Thr Majority Of Utah Any Longer! We Will Vote You Out! Gone!!!!, WTF is lowering the limit gonna Solve? Absoulutley Nothing. Go Ahead Make it Law and Youll see No Change, but you’ll still get Your Huge Taxes from it! Right? Idiots

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