It’s déjà vu in Utah when it comes to the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit while driving.
Like it was 34 years ago, Utah is at the forefront of the move to lower the BAC limit. The state Legislature passed a bill this week to lower it from .08 to .05 — the lowest level in the country. In 1983, Utah was the first state to lower its legal limit from .1 to .08; the other 49 states followed its lead in subsequent years.
While Utah’s trailblazing on this issue is the same, the circumstances are different. There is no traffic safety or scientific justification that exists for the move from .08 to .05, and no evidence that such a move will save lives.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that only a miniscule fraction of traffic deaths involve a driver with a BAC between .08 and .05 — just 1 percent of all deaths in 2015. That’s because drivers at these BAC levels are sober. A 120-pound woman could reach the .05 limit with little more than a single drink. In fact, this new law will be a defacto ban on women drinking if they plan to drive anywhere. Most women won’t want to risk being arrested and will feel compelled to abstain altogether.
Utah legislators don’t seem to think banning any drinking prior to driving is a bad thing. In fact, they were persuaded by the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) “zero tolerance” message. In that regard, Utah is unique. Because the vast majority of its population never drinks (indeed they already have the lowest DUI fatality rate in the country) there is less context for what .05 actually means in terms of impairment. But is the rest of the country really ready to say that any drinking prior to driving is criminal behavior?
The fact is, many of the small percentage of deaths that occur between .05 and .08 are caused by factors other than alcohol. There’s a difference between “alcohol-involved” and “alcohol-caused.” The latter suggests alcohol impairment as the main cause of the crash, while the former simply alludes to the presence of alcohol on the scene. This means that when someone is texting and driving after a glass of wine with dinner and kills someone on the road, the crash is designated as “alcohol-involved.” Yet it’s the distracted driving that is the culprit. That’s why the NHTSA only categorizes deaths that occur above .08 as “alcohol-caused.”
At BAC levels below .08, a driver’s impairment is negligible. For example, research shows that talking on a hands-free cellphone is more impairing than having a BAC of .08. And texting while driving is the impairment equivalent of a 170 pound man having nine drinks before driving. In fact, enforcement of the new .05 legal limit in Utah will be a real challenge, considering that a driver at .05 won’t exhibit any of the driving behaviors associated with drunk driving and will have no trouble passing a standard roadside sobriety test.
Real drunk driving is still a major traffic safety threat. But the vast majority of alcohol-caused fatalities come from hardcore offenders who wouldn’t be affected by a change in the legal limit. In fact, 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities are caused by drivers with BACs of .15 or higher, with an average of .19, or almost four times Utah’s proposed rate.
If having a legal limit of .08 doesn’t deter these dangerous drivers from getting heavily intoxicated before driving home, logic suggests lowering the legal limit further to .05 will also have no effect.
Even the largest advocacy group representing the victims of drunk driving — Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — declines to support lowering the legal limit. MADD’s founder, Candy Lightner, called the idea “impractical” and “a waste of time” because it fails to target the real DUI threat.
Instead of diverting limited traffic safety resources to go after responsible drinkers with no signs of impairment at low BAC levels, resources should target the high-BAC and repeat drunk driving offenders by enforcing existing ignition interlock laws, among other initiatives.
We all want to save lives on the road, but to effectively accomplish that we need to agree on what the real problem is — legitimately drunk drivers who habitually decide to put themselves and others at risk, not responsible social drinkers.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association in Washington, D.C.