SALT LAKE CITY — A state legislator is proposing that Utah lower the legal blood alcohol concentration limit for driving from .08 to .05.
If successful, Utah would become the first state in the nation to do so, following in the footsteps of dozens of European and Asian countries that already have a .05 drunken driving limit.
In rough terms, that's about three drinks over the course of an hour for a 170-pound man and about two drinks over an hour for a woman weighing 130 pounds.
The sponsor of the proposal, Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, said his intent is to save lives and start a culture shift around what constitutes “drunk” driving.
"We shouldn't have the public message that you're OK at .07," Thurston said. "You're not OK at .07. You're not OK at .06. In reality, you're not even OK at .02. But in terms of practicality and what the law should be, .05 seems to be that area where it makes sense to have the cutoff."
Many studies show that even a small amount of alcohol can impair driving. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the legal limit to .05 blood alcohol content in 2013, to little effect.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of 9,000 drivers published last year found that a .05 blood alcohol content level doubles a driver’s risk of crashing. Even at low alcohol levels, like .03 blood alcohol content, the risk of crashing increases by 20 percent.
By .08 blood alcohol content, drivers are four times more likely to crash, according to the study.
Still, alcohol is not the most common risk factor when it comes to fatal crashes.
According to the Utah Highway Safety Office, drunken driving was a contributing factor in about 13 percent of fatal crashes last year in Utah. Speed was a factor in 37 percent of deaths, and lack of seatbelt use was a factor in 31 percent.
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank, said Thurston’s proposal would end up criminalizing Utahns and saddling them with legal complications with little positive effect.
He criticized DUI laws for penalizing people for drinking alcohol when they have not harmed another person.
"If anyone is driving recklessly, whether because they're intoxicated or texting or tired or distracted with a kid in the back seat, that's a reason to get them off the road or try to resolve the situation at roadside and help that person get home," Boyack said.
"Certainly, if that reckless behavior leads to harming another person, then serious penalties should come in," he added. "But without a victim, our position would be the Department of Public Safety should be focused on resolving that concern without punitive action."
Drunken driving thresholds used to be higher. It took a years of effort to lower them to .08 in the 1980s and '90s. Delaware, in 2004, was the last to reduce its legal limit to .08.
Researchers have found evidence that lowering the blood alcohol content limit to .08 resulted in a decrease of alcohol-related crashes by about 5 percent to 16 percent.
Thurston's proposal is supported by the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, which made a push to lower the drunken driving threshold in Utah several years ago.
Sutherland Institute public policy director Derek Monson pointed out that the bill would not interfere with how law enforcement officials already operate.
Currently, Utahns can still face drunken driving charges if they fail a sobriety test and show evidence of impaired driving, even if they have a blood alcohol content level below .08.
"Nothing about lowering DUI levels to .05 means a highway patrolman is doing anything different," Monson said. "They're still going to pull people over when they see some problematic driving patterns. It's not going to be this crazy thing where now we're going to go on mass campaigns to hit .06 drivers."
Thurston said he agreed that lawmakers don’t need to put more people in jail but pushed back against criticism that the proposal is overprotective.
"I don't think this comes down to conservative or not conservative," Thurston said. "It comes down to 'OK, what's the best way to get people to just be responsible for themselves and not drink and drive?'"