Based on arrest numbers during the first month of enforcement of Utah’s new .05 percent blood alcohol driving limit, the law is being handled by police exactly as intended, and not as critics claimed it would be — as a cudgel against imbibers who take to the road after only a drink or two.
Of the 844 people arrested by the Utah Highway Patrol in January for suspicion of DUI, only four were arrested for DUI alone with a blood-alcohol content between .05 and .079 percent. There were 38 total arrests involving blood-alcohol levels in that range, but of that number, 24 were under previous driving restrictions for alcohol-related infractions, seven were under age and two also had illegal or prescription drugs in their system.
Opponents of the law argued that police attention would be better focused against serious, chronic drunken drivers. The January data demonstrates the new law is indeed being deployed against the more dangerous on the road, while proffering no indication that state police are using it to target drivers who are not demonstrating visible signs of impairment.
This is good news, but even better news is data showing overall accidents, injuries and fatalities tied to DUI were down in January compared to levels in past years. There are insufficient numbers at this point to conclude a cause-and-effect between the new .05 percent limit and fewer crashes, but logic would suggest the law is serving as a deterrent against driving while intoxicated, just as it was intended, and just as it should.
In the way of caveat, the data is for only a single month and is not necessarily reflective of how local law enforcement agencies — aside from the UHP — are executing enforcement. We would hope and expect the data to continue at similar levels and be consistent across police agencies.
Assuming it does, it will provide further incentive for other states to follow suit in lowering DUI blood percentages. Proposed laws in Michigan and California would also set .05 percent as the limit, as it is in many European countries and as has been advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board.
When the Utah law first surfaced on Capitol Hill, it met an immediate outcry from the hospitality industry and others who said it would cast Utah in a negative light, a place where tourists would face the specter of being stopped by police as they drove away from a restaurant or pub. Whether the new measure has had an impact on tourism or the hospitality business is not easy to quantify.22 comments on this story
The beneficial impact on public safety, however, is measurable. Nearly 2 out of 3 drivers arrested under the new blood-percentage range in January were not supposed to be driving with any alcohol in their system — period. From that perspective, the law has already proven effective at identifying repeat offenders.
Any measure that can deter people with a history of DUI from taking the wheel is valuable. The January numbers are a demonstration the new law, as it is being enforced in its early days, is not designed to target drinkers, but those who make the dangerous choice to take the wheel when they know they shouldn’t.