SALT LAKE CITY — Under calls that it will save lives, legislators sent a bill to the House floor Friday to make Utah's legal blood alcohol limit for driving the lowest in the nation.
Bill sponsor Rep. Norman Thurston, R-Provo, said reducing drivers' legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05 isn't intended to discourage Utahns from drinking, but convince them not to get behind the wheel if they do.
"I don't want to throw more people in jail. What I want to do is find things that change the social mindset to driving in safer ways," Thurston said.
If HB155 becomes law, it would take effect Dec. 30, 2018, allowing time to disseminate information about the change and implementing it just in time for the New Year's Eve weekend, Thurston said.
It also would Utah the first state in the country to match what Thurston called an "international standard" for laws regarding drinking and driving.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Traffic Safety Board, cited the success in dozens of European and Asian countries that lowered the legal alcohol limit for drivers and reduced the number of drunken driving fatalities.
"Although people in those countries continue to drink more per capita than people in the U.S., there are fewer deaths on the roads," Dinh-Zarr said. "They drink more, and yet they die less because of a .05 BAC."
The NTSB has recommended lowering alcohol driving limits to .05 or lower since 2013, Dinh-Zarr said. If the standard was adopted nationwide, fatal alcohol crashes would drop by 11 percent, she said, or nearly 1,800 people each year.
The bill passed in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee with a 9-2 vote. Reps. Angela Romero and Sandra Hollins, both D-Salt Lake City, voted against the bill but did not speak about their opposition Friday.
Speaking against the bill, Sean Druyon, a legislative committee member for the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said lowering the legal driving limit for blood alcohol concentrations would lead to more people losing their licenses, which in turn leads to lost jobs and hardships for families.
Someone who is found to be impaired but is still below .08 would face a citation rather than a DUI charge that comes with automatic 120-day driver's license suspension, he said.
Druyon said he believes many of the drivers caught up in the law would be first-time offenders who, under current law, would only receive a citation.
"For most first-time offenders, it's a wake-up call," Druyon said. "This has a huge impact on drivers who have never gotten a ticket before, have never gotten a DUI charge, have never gotten an alcohol-related charge, and yet now they're losing their jobs, they're losing their licenses."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, became combative questioning Druyon about his opposition to the bill, telling him, "You're talking about people losing their jobs. I lost my grandfather."
Druyon said the bill fails to balance between individual freedoms and protecting the community. He also voiced concern about a potential impact to the state's tourism dollars if people choose not to come to Utah in light of the lower allowable drinking level. Additionally, many areas in the state, like Park City, don't have enough public transit to offer an alternative.
Opposition also came from the Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit group. Michael Melendez, director of policy, said the organization's stance is that drivers should not face criminal alcohol-related offenses unless they do any harm. Some members of the committee snickered in response but did not ask questions.
Rolayne Fairclough, a spokeswoman for AAA, said the organization supports lowering the limit.
"People sometimes just don't know how much they're drinking. They don't know what their limits are. This will absolutely set that mark. If you've had a drink, you just don't drive. There's not any confusion anymore," Fairclough said.
Thurston said the law would not put additional responsibilities on law enforcement officers, who would continue to respond to and investigate alcohol-related traffic offenses as they currently do.
Utah already has one of the lowest rates in the nation of DUI fatalities, Dihn-Zarr said, but the numbers have risen from 12 percent in 2005 to 22 percent in 2014. She called it "simply wrong" to say that lowering legal blood alcohol limits is about drinking. Rather, the focus is on convincing people to find alternatives to driving when they drink, she said.
"Without burdening police officers or prosecutors with extra work, lowering the BAC would prevent deaths and injuries on Utah roads. It would spare dozens of Utah families every year from hearing about the death of a loved one," Dihn-Zarr said.