Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Trooper Nick Swallow walks back to his vehicle during a traffic stop along I-15 in Salt Lake City. Law enforcement agencies gather at Sugar House Park for a press conference to remind people not to drink and drive on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Let’s have a sober discussion about drunken driving laws.

The main hoped-for benefit of Utah’s pending new .05 percent blood alcohol limit for drunken driving is that it would begin to change a stubborn culture in the U.S. that tolerates a level of impaired driving while keeping people guessing as to how impaired they are.

It isn’t to reduce accidents involving people with alcohol levels of between .05 percent and the current .08 percent limit, which opponents constantly hammer home to demonstrate how ridiculous the new limit would be.

But let’s look at that soberly, too. Claims that the number of accidents involving people in this range are negligible are misleading. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports that 2,017 people died nationwide in accidents involving drivers with blood alcohol contents of .01 percent to .07 percent in 2016.

Nor should the aim be to reduce the consumption of alcohol. Nothing in the state law that was passed last year, and which has an effective date of Dec. 30 this year, would change the availability of alcohol or a person’s ability to drink it.

It would, however, send the message that alcohol consumption of any amount (who can know when they have passed a .05 percent level?) probably is unacceptable. If you’re planning to drink even a glass of wine with dinner, you should make arrangements for a trip home.

Is that unreasonable? I can see where it would seem so. Cultural shifts tend to be difficult at first, and that would be especially true for law-abiding people who responsibly monitor their consumption before driving. But people in many other nations, including ones where people drink much more than here, have adjusted to that reality, with great success.

Another frequent argument against changing the limit is that most drunken driving accidents involve people who greatly exceed the current .08 percent limit. This is true. About 67 percent of DUI fatalities nationwide involved at least one driver with a .15 percent blood alcohol level or higher in 2016, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

But it’s also true that DUI-related fatalities dropped a whopping 65 percent between 1982 and 2016. That corresponds nicely with the nationwide move to a .08 percent limit, pioneered by Utah in 1983 and gradually accepted in each state.

Reducing DUI limits does lead to a reduction in accidents, just as it leads to an outcry from certain groups and a concern, especially in Utah, that casual drinkers are being unfairly demonized by a clueless majority.

Would a change in culture make problem drinkers think twice before sitting behind the wheel with blood alcohol levels several times the legal limit?

The effect of a change in culture is that it subtly alters the definition of what society considers acceptable behavior. Not only do people think differently about how they behave, they feel pressure from the expectations of people around them. Think of how the culture of cigarette smoking in public has changed over the past 50 years.

Even with reductions in DUI levels, nearly one-third of fatal accidents in the U.S. involves alcohol. In Sweden, where I have lived and where the DUI level is .02 percent, the figure is about 3 percent.

Sweden has a strong drinking culture. It also has a strong anti-drunken driving culture. And while the largest cities have great public transit systems to help drinkers get home, other cities do not. People have learned to adjust.

Utah needs to have a serious discussion about this because pressure is mounting to change the .05 percent law before it can take effect. A bill has been introduced that would delay implementation until at least 2022.

44 comments on this story

Meanwhile, The American Beverage Institute, which was established by Richard Berman, owner of Berman and Co., a public affairs and nonprofit management firm whose clients include the restaurant and beverage industries, has been hard at work attacking the law. The group bought a full-page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune calling Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, a hypocrite for sponsoring a bill that would allow someone who had been drinking to protect him or herself with a firearm as self-defense.

I know nothing about Thurston’s bill, but I do know the ad is a poor response to a long list of scientific and medical associations that endorse the .05 percent level with sound evidence.

Utah’s law alone won’t change the culture, but change needs to begin somewhere.