In 1983, Utah was the first state to lower its blood alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08 for impaired driving. It would take nearly two decades for every state to follow suit, but as they did, the nation's rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped 10 percent. Now, Utah is pioneering the move to lower it once again.
Beginning Dec. 30 — yes, the day before New Year's Eve — Utahns will have to be extra careful about drinking and driving. On Sunday, the state's blood alcohol content limit will drop from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, marking the strictest DUI law in the country.
To give you an idea of the difference in consumption, for a man weighing 180 pounds, it takes about four drinks to reach a BAC of 0.08 percent, according to the American Beverage Institute. But to reach .05, it's about half as many drinks and can be even fewer for women.
Utah law limits the type of and strength of alcohol depending on where it is purchased, with different limits on beer and heavy beer.
Still, the current limit of .08 is "a significant amount of drinking" for a lot of people, says Utah state Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican.
Thurston sponsored the bill to lower the limit in 2017 at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been urging states to lower DUI limits to 0.05 since 2013.
Thurston says he believes the new limit will save lives because it sends a strict message to anyone who has been drinking not to get behind the wheel.
"You would think that we're already there as a society," but Thurston says he meets a lot of people who say they think it's safe to drink and drive, "just a little bit."
Critics slammed the Republican, a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for running the bill. The church urges its members not to consume alcohol, and many accused him, as a Mormon, of trying to legislate drinkers and non-Mormons.
The American Beverage Institute, an alcohol trade organization, has been a vocal critic of the law. Spokesman Jackson Shedelbower says he doesn't believe the change will save lives. The lower limit targets social, moderate drinkers, not "legitimately drunk drivers," he says.
"Nearly 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities in this country are caused by someone with a BAC of 0.15 and above," Shedlbower says, three times the new limit in Utah.
So, will drunken driving arrests in Utah increase starting Dec. 30? Probably not, says Sgt. Nick Street with the Utah Highway Patrol.
"Troopers and officers throughout the state should already be arresting based on impairment, not based on a per se limit, and that standard is not going to change," he says.
Street says he believes the law has already changed drivers' behaviors, even before it went into effect.
"I think people are making better decisions on the front end of a night," by using ride-hailing apps or choosing designated drivers.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This Sunday in Utah, the legal blood alcohol limit will drop from .08 percent to .05. It's the lowest DUI limit in the country. Nicole Nixon of member station KUER has this report.
NICOLE NIXON, BYLINE: A couple blocks on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City are lined with bars. It's pretty quiet on a December weeknight. But people like Marcia and Craig Hartman are still bustling around. Like most Utahns, the couple has mixed feelings on the state's new DUI limit. She calls it stupid. But he's more indifferent.
MARCIA HARTMAN: Oh, I just don't think it needs to be more restrictive than other states have. And he's a non-drinker.
CRAIG HARTMAN: Yeah, it doesn't bother me.
NIXON: Utah's strict new DUI limit passed to loud opposition from restaurant and hospitality groups, who worried the law would hurt business. For many Utahns, it means about half as many drinks when they go out. If you're a 180-pound man, about four drinks will get you to a blood alcohol content of .08 percent. But under the new limit in Utah, anything more than two drinks in an hour, and you're legally impaired. It's even less alcohol for women.
NORM THURSTON: .08 for a lot of people is a significant amount of drinking.
NIXON: That's Norm Thurston, the Republican lawmaker who ran the bill at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board. Thurston believes the new limit will save lives because it sends a strict message that anyone who's been drinking should not get behind the wheel.
THURSTON: You would think that we're already there as a society. But one of the things that I have learned through this process is that there are a lot of people out there that think it's OK to drink and drive just a little bit.
NIXON: Critics slammed Thurston for running the bill. He's a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which urges its members not to consume alcohol. Many accused the Mormon lawmaker of trying to legislate drinkers and non-Mormons.
The American Beverage Institute, an alcohol trade organization, has been a vocal critic of the law. Spokesman Jackson Shedelbower disagrees with the assertion that it will save lives. He says the lower limit targets moderate social drinkers, not those he calls legitimately drunk drivers.
JACKSON SHEDELBOWER: Nearly 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities in this country are caused by someone with .15 and above. And that's three times what Utah is about to go to, three times the limit.
NIXON: The law passed in 2017. But since then, there have been several attempts to roll it back, including one by state Senator Jim Dabakis earlier this year. Halfway through his argument in a Senate committee, the Salt Lake City Democrat admitted he was impaired at the new legal limit.
JIM DABAKIS: I had breakfast. And then I went and had two mimosas, and I breathed at 0.5. So my entire presentation has been at 0.5.
NIXON: Tabac said he felt perfectly fine, though what he meant to say was .05, not .5. Lawmakers rejected his and others' proposals, so the law will remain unchanged when it goes into effect this Sunday, the day before New Year's Eve. But will drunk driving arrests go up starting Sunday? Probably not, says Sergeant Nick Street with the Utah Highway Patrol.
SERGEANT NICK STREET: I think people are making better decisions on the front end of a night where they may go out and consume alcoholic beverages to the point where they're impaired.
NIXON: He believes the law has already had an impact even though it hasn't taken effect yet.
STREET: They're planning ahead with ride-sharing or with a designated driver with their group. Those things are happening.
NIXON: Back in the '80s, Utah and Oregon were the first states to lower their BAC limits from .10 to .08. As other states did the same in the following decades, the nation's rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped 10 percent. Now Utah is hoping to be a pioneer in helping lower that number once again. For NPR News, I'm Nicole Nixon in Salt Lake City.
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