Deseret News

During the holiday season, public officials urge drivers to be safe behind the wheel. This means never mixing alcohol and driving. Debate has once again surfaced over Utah’s decision to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

It is a smart public health decision, which we continue to support. Utah is wise to lead out in promoting safer drinking laws.

In late March, Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB 155 into law, which goes into effect in a year. Colorado drivers can already receive lesser criminal charges with a BAC of 0.05, but the minimum for a DUI infraction is still 0.08 in other states. When the law takes effect, Utah may become the first state to have a legal BAC below 0.08 percent. It would also be the first to implement the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation from 2013 that a safer BAC is 0.05 percent. Nationwide, for commercial drivers, the BAC level for a DUI or DWI is set even lower at .04 percent.

Unsurprisingly, Utah's law was met with criticism from lobbyists at the American Beverage Industry. Two of their central concerns relate to the idea that this law would hurt tourism and that it would only benefit members of the state’s majority religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper.

These, of course, were two arguments trotted out back when Utah became the first state to reduce the BAC level to 0.08 percent. Back then, after Utah led out, the rest of the nation followed. The rationale for lowering the BAC in other states had little to do with a “majority religion” — but had everything to do with public safety and science. That is still true.

Meanwhile, there’s little evidence to suggest that the new law will affect tourism. Has Sweden lost tourists because the country’s BAC level is 0.02 percent? Last year, Sweden attracted more nonresident tourists than any of its Nordic neighbors. Recent data suggest that nonresident tourists in Utah spent 75 percent more on “amusement and recreation,” including winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding, than they did on alcoholic beverages. This statistic supports a common-knowledge fact about Utah: It is known for its breathtaking and varied national parks and world-class mountain resorts, not its drinking culture. It does not attract the same clientele as, say, a city like Las Vegas, where tourism is dependent on entertainment, gambling and, of course, food and alcohol consumption. Tourists will still be drawn to Utah after this law goes into effect for the state’s main attraction: the natural landscape.

Second, while 60 percent of Utahns identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and choose in large numbers to refrain from alcohol, the public health implications of drunk driving affect all citizens. In addition to Sweden, many other countries have set their legal BAC at 0.05 percent or lower, and in Europe they enjoy some of the lowest rates of drunk driving fatalities in the world. This success, of course, also involves a high reliance on public transportation and a cultural orientation toward supporting healthy alcohol habits. Yet, with the advent of increasingly greater access to ride-hailing, there are options for those who shouldn’t get behind the wheel.

As Deseret News columnist Jay Evensen recently pointed out, the new BAC law that goes into effect the last day 2018, represents 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.”

Utah’s decision to lower the legal BAC level limit is based on sound science and data, and it marks an important step in the right direction toward ensuring the public health and safety of all of Utah’s citizens.