SALT LAKE CITY — A Washington D.C.-based advocacy group is challenging a proposal being made to state legislators to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers in Utah.
On Wednesday, lawmakers heard a presentation from a Maryland-based researcher detailing the benefits of reducing the blood-alcohol legal limit for drunken driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
Research shows that most people experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions related to driving with a blood-alcohol content of just 0.05, increasing the risk of being involved in a potentially fatal crash, James Fell — senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Md. — told the Business and Labor Interim Committee Wednesday.
The reduced blood-alcohol level has proven to be effective at lowering highway deaths abroad and could work just as well in the U.S. if the standard becomes law, he said.
“Studies show that there is significant impairment at 0.05 with regard to some critical driving tasks,” Fell said. “If it has an 8 to 10 percent effect, that will save almost a thousand lives a year.”
In response, the American Beverage Institute — a restaurant trade association located in Washington D.C. — criticized the group’s recommendation for targeting responsible moderate drinkers instead of the dangerous drunken drivers who pose the greatest threat to traffic safety.
“Over 70 percent of drunk driving fatalities are caused by drivers with 0.15 or higher (six to seven drinks) and the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16 percent — twice the current legal limit,” a statement read.
“It’s ridiculous to assume that moving to 0.05 and criminalizing perfectly responsible behavior will eliminate drunk driving fatalities,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute. “Utah already has very strict penalties for drunk driving and stringent restrictions on alcohol sales. Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”
Lowering the legal limit would simply divert valuable public resources that should be used to pursue the most dangerous offenders and instead use them to target drivers engaging in perfectly safe behavior, she said.
Out of the more than 32,000 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2011 — the most recent year for data — less than 1 percent were caused by drivers with blood alcohol levels between 0.05 and 0.08 percent, so lowering the legal limit is unlikely to lower the fatality rate further, the organization argued.
A study of South Australia after it lowered its blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05 found that the lower limit did not significantly affect the number of alcohol-related fatalities, according to the American Beverage Institute. A study of Denmark’s 0.05 law did not find a decrease in alcohol-related crashes in the first year after the law was adopted, but did find an increase in the number of drivers who said they will not consume any alcohol to avoid violating the law, the institute stated.
Arguing it would reduce fatal accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board in May called on all 50 states to lower the blood alcohol level that defines drunken driving to 0.05 percent. Utah's limit is 0.08 percent.
The NTSB noted that more than 100 countries already have limits of 0.05 percent, including most nations in Europe, much of South America and Australia. When Australia dropped its blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, there was a 5 percent to 18 percent drop in traffic fatalities in various areas, according to the NTSB.
Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually in the U.S., the safety board said.
While Utah lawmakers have yet to discuss the matter, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said time will tell if the Utah Legislature has an appetite for what would likely be a contentious legal battle.
Valentine — the legislator behind most of the recent changes to Utah's liquor law — admitted it was too soon to say whether he or any of his colleagues would sponsor a bill during the next session that would target reducing the blood alcohol level for impaired driving.
"We are always willing to look at that balance between the public safety side and the hospitality side,” Valentine said. “Whether this would be something we would put in the mix or not, gosh, it's way too early to say that."