SALT LAKE CITY — In this corner: the combined wisdom of the World Medical Association, American Medical Association, British Medical Association, European Commission, European Transport Safety Council, World Health Organization, Canadian Medical Association, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, not to mention the Utah state Legislature and the National Transportation Safety Board.
All of these support lowering the legal blood alcohol limit for driving from .08 percent to .05 percent.
And in the other corner: The American Beverage Institute, established by Richard Berman, owner of Berman and Co., a public affairs and nonprofit management firm whose clients include the restaurant and beverage industries. Also in the other corner: the local hospitality industry. These folks oppose the new .05 percent limit and tend to discredit research that shows it would be beneficial.
Which side do you believe?
Granted, this is an issue that will disappear once we’re all tucked safely inside self-driving cars. When that happens, computer hackers, whether sober or inebriated, will be our biggest worry.
But for now, Utah is in a unique situation. Lawmakers here have decided to become the first state in the nation to lower the legal driving limit to .05 percent. When the law was passed earlier this year, it included an effective date of Dec. 30, 2018, just in time for New Year’s revelers to think twice while ushering in 2019. It also gives other states ample time to join the bandwagon, which so far is moving slowly.
This isn’t the first time Utah has been here. In 1983, the state was the first to lower the limit to .08 percent. It may be instructive to hear how Berman reacted to that move as it began to spread from state to state.
In an op-ed published in November 1997, he argued that .08 percent “is not a reasonable arrest level for most people. A 120-pound woman reaches that level after two 6-ounce glasses of wine (the standard restaurant serving) over the course of two hours. Is this a problem drinker? I don’t think so.”
Berman also argued that people throwing private parties would be held liable for huge damage awards if a guest left with .08 percent alcohol in the bloodstream and slid “off an icy road into another driver.”
At the time, 37 states still had legal limits of .10 percent or more.
Today we look back through the decades and see what really happened. We also generally understand that the mythical 120-pound woman, problem drinker or not, was too impaired to drive.
This all came up again this week because researchers with the nonpartisan group NORC at the University of Chicago, formerly called the National Opinion Research Center, published a study that found deadly alcohol-related car crashes would drop by 11.1 percent nationally if all states adopted a .05 percent limit. Put differently, it would save 1,790 lives.
NORC also looked at the effects of dropping the limit from .10 percent to .08 percent and found a 10.4 percent decline in fatal crashes from 1982 to 2014. That saved 1,736 lives per year, or 24,868 lives total.
If the beverage and hospitality industries are worried people might stop drinking, the research also predicted no change in consumption because of a .05 percent limit.
Americans need to ponder why it is that they, generally speaking, are so reluctant to change the culture of acceptable behavior after consuming alcohol. They especially need to ponder why they remain reluctant in the face of peer-reviewed studies.
The Society for the Study of Addiction published a study that found “virtually all drivers are impaired regarding at least some driving performance measures at a 0.05 BAC.”
Maybe this is a reluctance burned into our nature from the failures of the Prohibition era. And maybe lawmakers should reduce the penalties for drivers with the lower alcohol levels, as some have suggested.
But nearly 100 nations have adopted limits of .05 percent or lower. As a co-author of the NORC study told the Deseret News, “we’re behind the times on this.”
Expect to hear more from the opponents of .05 percent. The American Beverage Institute already has run ads in neighboring states encouraging people to avoid Utah.
You decide which side is more credible.