Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - Trooper Nick Swallow talks with a driver after pooling them over for speeding.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's toughest-in-the-nation DUI law will go into effect Dec. 30, barring an unlikely change of direction among state lawmakers.

An attempt to delay dropping the legal blood-alcohol content for driving from .08 percent to .05 percent in Utah failed Wednesday. The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee rejected a bill on a 5-3 vote that would have put it off for one year.

"This is a bad policy and we need to fix it," said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said in arguing for HB345. She said it would have "grave" consequences for the lives of people arrested at the lower level. "We need more time to evaluate the impacts on those people who are cited at .05 to .07."

Kwan, who acknowledged she doesn't drink, said there's no indication that delaying the date would put motorists at risk. An education campaign, not more stringent laws, is a better way to curb drinking and driving, she said.

"If I thought this was going to impact public safety, I wouldn’t run it. We’re all out there," she said.

The Legislature passed the .05 standard in 2017 but delayed the effective date until this year.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who tried unsuccessfully to move up the date two weeks, said the fact that Utahns believe the law is already in place has cut down on drunken driving.

"I think this is ready to go, prime time. I wish it were completely in effect right now," he said.

Marshall Thompson, Utah Sentencing Commission director, spoke in favor of the delay. He said the commission favors a tiered approach to sentencing because someone driving at .05 is less culpable than a driver at .08. He asked for time to flesh out a draft proposal.

His comments drew an angry tongue-lashing from Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, calling Thompson's reasons for putting off the law "pretty lame."

"I'm telling you, if that's the type of feedback we're going to get on policy, you're reputation and legitimacy as a commission is going to be absolutely destroyed before this session is over," Hutchings said, his voice rising.

"This the law," he said. "And it strikes me as interesting that our sentencing commission director has come to this committee to say we would prefer not to implement the law. That disturbs me."

Hutchings promptly walked out of the meeting and did not return.

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Representatives of Utah's hospitality and restaurant industries contend the law hurts business and tourism as well as targets people who stop at a bar for a drink after work.

"Perception is reality, and so that's what the perception is out there right now," David Morris, who owns four bars. "The way I understand it is if you have a couple beers, that shouldn't be illegal. That's responsible, not criminal."

Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Steve Winward told the committee it would be "business as usual" regardless of the law.

"We're still going to arrest for impairment," he said.