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In our opinion: Reduce DUI limit

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah should lower its drunk driving limit to a .05 percent blood-alcohol level or lower.

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Utah should lower its legal drunk driving limit from the current .08 percent blood-alcohol level to .05 or less. That has been the position of this newspaper for 20 years or more.

We are glad Utah lawmakers will receive a presentation on the benefits of such a move when they meet in October interim meetings. Utah has the opportunity to lead out on such a reduction, nudging other states to adopt standards similar to what exist in many foreign countries.

The Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank, has invited James Fell to make this case to lawmakers. Fell is senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Md. He is expected to share data that shows how cognitive and visual functions deteriorate when a person has a blood alcohol level of .05 or higher.

As we noted earlier this year, studies shows that concentration levels begin to suffer even at a .03 blood alcohol level. By .06, reasoning begins to be skewed. Drivers have difficulty with depth perception, peripheral vision and the ability to recover when glare is present. In addition, people at those levels begin to lose their inhibitions, which also relates to a loss of judgment and the inability to calculate risks.

A strong argument could be made for reducing the legal limit to .02, which is similar to the limits in many industrialized countries, including Sweden, Norway, the Baltic countries and parts of Australia. That would be a low enough level to account for false positive results, yet also low enough to let people know that they need to find alternative means of transportation if they plan to drink any alcohol at all.

Utah typically has among the lowest rates of DUI deaths in the nation. In 2011, however, 39 people died in alcohol or drug-related auto accidents, which was a sharp increase over the 25 who died the previous year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers an accident to be alcohol-related if anyone involved registers alcohol in the bloodstream above .01 percent. In light of this, it is nothing short of remarkable that DUI fatalities have been roughly cut in half nationwide since 1980. As with cigarette smoking, drinking and driving has become socially unacceptable. Cultural pressures are much more effective at changing behavior than are laws. However, laws can spur cultural pressures when they are backed by sound logic and lead to a desirable result.

Just under 10,000 people died nationwide in alcohol-related accidents in 2011. Fell believes studies show that level would be cut by at least 1,000 more if every state were to adopt a .05 legal level.

Frankly, it’s time Utah lawmakers made this move. A lower level presents no downsides, regardless of what beverage companies and restaurant associations may say.

Utah’s rising DUI numbers may have been a one-year anomaly. It may be the natural result of a growing population. But it ought to alarm lawmakers. With the rest of the nation trending toward fewer DUI deaths, Utah ought to be leading the way.

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