SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Road deaths declined in Utah after the state enacted the nation’s toughest drunk driving laws five years ago, a new study finds. published Friday by a US government agency.
The findings, which relate to deaths involving alcohol and not alcohol, provide initial validation for conservative lawmakers who passed the law due to concerns from restaurant and tourism industry lobbyists.
In the study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the researchers wrote that in the years since Utah changed the drink-driving threshold from 0.08% to 0.05% d Alcohol levels, crashes and deaths fell even as drivers logged more miles.
“The 0.05% law change in Utah has saved lives and motivated more drivers to take action to avoid impaired driving,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, deputy administrator of the agency.
The results mark a triumph for Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature, which voted to lower the legal limit in 2017, fearing it would discourage new residents and potential tourists.
They and other opponents argued that it would be ineffective and would cement Utah’s pious reputation to the detriment of the growing number of visitors and residents who are not part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. .
Utah, where about 60% of the population is faith-based, has long had some of the strictest liquor laws in the country.
All spirits and wines are sold in state-run stores. Bartenders are required to use special spouts to ensure they pour specific amounts of alcohol into mixed drinks. And beer can only be sold in grocery stores if its alcohol content by volume is less than 5%.
In response to the study, Jackson Shedelbower of the American Beverage Institute said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) presents selective information.
“NHTSA’s cause and effect explanation is data selection. Utah has seen a decline in alcohol-related road deaths since 2016, but so have more than thirty other states. Three other small-populated states have seen greater declines than Utah without giving up their 0.08 (blood alcohol content) law,” he said.
A church spokesman, Doug Anderson, declined to comment on the study but reaffirmed the faith’s position from 2017 when, after the policy was adopted, the church said the law ” demonstrates Utah’s commitment to good public policy and to protecting people from the tragedies that come from drinking and driving.
When the state lowered the threshold for impaired driving from the national standard of 0.08 percent BAC, lawmakers argued that it would make driving safer.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study showed fewer crashes and less alcohol both after the widely publicized law was passed in 2017 and after it went into effect in 2018.
In 2019, the first full year with the law in effect, there were 225 fatal crashes and 248 fatalities in Utah. Although drivers drove more miles, that was less than the 259 fatal crashes and 281 fatalities in 2016, the year before Utah changed its law.
The change meant that a 150-pound (68-kilogram) man would exceed the limit by 0.05% after two beers, while a 120-pound (54-kilogram) woman could exceed it after just one drink, although that could be affected by a number of factors, including the amount of food a person has eaten, according to the American Beverage Institute, a national food service group.
Accident and death rates have also dropped in neighboring states, but not as significantly as in Utah.
Accidents per mile driven fell 19.8% from 2016 to 2019 in Utah, which was well above the reduction rates of 5.6% for the entire United States.
DUI arrest rate increased after Utah law took effect, from 76 to 84 arrests per 100,000 population between Q4 2018 and Q4 2019 .
Additionally, the survey data included in the study also suggests that more people who drink alcohol changed their behavior after the law came into effect.
In 2018, 1 in 8 drinkers said they made sure transportation would be available when drinking outside the home, either by a designated driver or a ride-sharing service. In 2019, more than 1 in 4 respondents said they made sure they would be available.
The revised BAC law does not appear to have affected tourism either. Alcohol sales and overall visitor spending increased steadily from 2009 to 2019 and did not decline after the new law took effect in 2018. The tourism industry has struggled during the pandemic but is slowly rebounding, according to data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah show.
In response to the study, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety group which supported the lower limit lambasted the hospitality industry for what it called “fear-inducing tactics” – including an advertising campaign by the American Beverage Institute which warned potential visitors to Utah: “Come on vacation, go on an internship.”
“The study results provide a strong rebuttal to these baseless arguments made by opponents of lower BAC laws,” Cathy Chase, president of the group, said in a statement.
The National Safety Transportation Board has been encouraging states since 2013 to follow Utah’s lead. State legislators such as Delaware, New York, Oregon, Hawaii, California and Michigan have considered changing their laws. But other than Utah, all states use 0.08% as the legal BAC limit.
“The hope is that other states will see these results and join Utah in passing legislation for 0.05,” National Transportation Safety Board member Tom Chapman said in a statement.
Utah Rep. Norm Thurston, the Republican who sponsored the 2017 legislation, said vocal opposition to the law provided needed publicity that could have increased the law’s effectiveness, discouraging people from driving blind drunk.
He said he’s spoken to lawmakers in about 10 other states interested in adopting similar policies. Changing the threshold, he said, proved “there are things we put into public policy that will change people’s behavior.”