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.
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.
- Read the bill: 2017 HB 155 Driving Under the Influence and Public Safety Revisions, First Substitute
- To contact your legislators:
- Bill sponsor: Norman Thurston
- Southern Utah Sens. Ralph Okerlund, Don Ipson, Evan Vickers and David Hinkins | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Walt Brooks, Merrill Nelson, Brad Last, John Westwood, Mike Noel, V. Lowry Snow and Jon Stanard | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives
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