Regulating Alcohol Out of the Driver’s Seat

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Utah’s reduced blood alcohol concentration limit sees reduction in drunk driving-related deaths.

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When you think about updating state legislation, drunk driving laws may not be the first topic that comes to mind. Yet a new law in Utah has broken the mold.

In every state but Utah, the legal limit for driving after drinking is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL). In Utah, however, legislators adopted a .05 limit instead. And in doing so, Utah has seen a nearly 20 percent reduction in fatal automobile crashes, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Utah law, passed in March 2017, took effect 21 months later on December 30, 2018. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Transportation evaluated the impacts of Utah’s reduced BAC limit. In its review, the Transportation Department considered the goals of this legislation and examined state agency data for changes in crashes and fatalities, drunk driving arrests, and economic indicators such as alcohol sales, tourism, and tax revenue following implementation. In addition, the Transportation Department looked at public outreach efforts related to the law and the law’s impact on public perception of driving while intoxicated.

By reducing the BAC limit, Utah’s legislators believed, fewer lives would be lost to drunk driving. But opponents of the law argued that it would not yield its intended effect. Instead, they believed that a more stringent BAC limit would have no impact on safety but would increase arrests for driving under the influence (DUI). This fear, among others, took hold of the media, where criticisms of the law focused on the idea that just one or two drinks could result in a BAC over the .05 limit.

Critics were wrong. Despite an increase in total vehicle miles traveled in 2019, the first year the law was in effect, state agency data revealed that roads were safer in Utah. The Transportation Department found that, after the new law’s implementation, Utah reported a 19.8 percent reduction in its fatal crash rate and an 18.3 percent reduction in its overall fatality rate. During the same period, these rates also declined for the United States, but by the smaller margins of a 5.6 percent reduction in fatal crash rate and a 5.9 percent reduction in overall fatality rate.

Moreover, DUI arrests did not dramatically increase in Utah. The Transportation Department reported that arrests for driving under the influence increased for BAC levels of .05 to .079 g/dL following implementation of the law, but they declined for BAC levels of .08 g/dL and higher. Put simply, after the law took effect, arrested drivers were less intoxicated. Still, the Transportation Department cautioned that data concerning the BAC level of arrestees are not always available, such as when no search warrant exists to perform a blood test.

Critics’ fears that revenue from alcohol sales, tourism, and taxes would decline also proved unfounded. The Transportation Department reported that profits from alcohol sales and taxes collected continued to increase after the law took effect. Per capita alcohol consumption also increased. In addition, passengers flying into Utah and tourism to state and national parks also steadily increased, in line with data trends since at least 2012. In short, “none of the potential negative effects that were of concern came to fruition,” according to the Transportation Department.

The Transportation Department also examined Utah’s media efforts to educate the public about the .05 BAC limit and public perceptions of the law. The Transportation Department found that Utah made no special campaigns to promote the new BAC limit, apart from posting information about impairment at .05 BAC on its website. Statewide campaigns, instead, remained focused on messaging a zero-tolerance policy for any impaired driving.

Still, state surveys demonstrated a “notable increase” in drinkers with knowledge of the correct limit after the law took effect: 54 percent of drinkers surveyed identified the correct BAC limit in 2019 versus 31 percent in 2018. In addition, 22 percent of surveyed drinkers reported that they had changed their drinking behavior after the .05 BAC limit was in place—most commonly, by arranging transportation home rather than by driving themselves.

The Transportation Department acknowledged that changed behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced these findings. Even so, the Department celebrated Utah’s .05 BAC limit as having resulted in “demonstrably positive impacts on highway safety” in the state because of the “reliable reductions” in crash rates and fatalities and ostensible lack of negative effects on Utah’s economy and DUI arrests. The Transportation Department suggested that safety data tracking in Utah should continue to illuminate whether the positive trends following the .05 BAC law endure.

The Transportation Department noted that other states may want to follow in Utah’s footsteps in response to the apparent success of its reduced BAC law. The Department indicated that it would perform similar impact evaluations for any state that chooses to adopt a .05 BAC limit.