Should Utah lead the nation in lowering the legal limit for blood alcohol levels (BAC) while drinking and driving from the national average of 0.08% to 0.05%?
James Fell, researcher for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, based in California, presented this very idea to the Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday. The researcher from the conservative think tank, which touts “freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility” thanked the Sutherland Institute at the start of the presentation for inviting Fell out, as both organizations have targeted alcohol consumption in recent years.
The cut and dry presentation was brief, as the late hour of the presentation was wearing on the lawmakers, but in that time Fell focused heavily on the public safety aspects associated with lowering the level to 0.05%.
“Four of the eleven studies I have found indicate that when you go from 0.08% to 0.05% [for the legal limit], you reduce alcohol related crashes,” said Fell. “It happened in the Netherlands, France, Austria, and Australia…[this reduction] usually happens within a year and is anywhere from 8 to 18%.”
Fell was quick to point out that it is not usually the case that a reduction from 0.08 to 0.05% BAC is the first step in zero tolerance. “Not based on the scientific literature” says Fell, “that said that public opinion usually does not tolerate any limit that is lower. Fell also noted that a change in policy would not cost the state additional funds, acknowledging that that there would be an uptick in arrests at first, but “not enough to overburden the courts.”
“The law sends a message to the public that society is getting tougher on impaired driving.” Fell told the committee.
Representative Fisher (Democrat – West Valley) asked Fell “if going out for a pizza and having a couple of beers or going to a fancy dinner, having a steak and a couple of glasses of wine, is that within the limit of 0.05%?” “Yes it is,” responded Fell.
The idea of reducing the BAC has floated around the legislature for years. Most recently, Orem Republican Senator, John Valentine indicated that he wished to investigate the idea of reducing the limit, noting that European nations have seen reductions in fatalities after reducing their legal limits. “This is obviously something we should be looking at,” Valentine told the Salt Lake Tribune in May.
Utah, which is already seen as out of sync with the rest of the nation in regards to alcohol policy, would lead the way with a 0.05% BAC as the lowest legal limit in the U.S. Many in the tourism industry have complained that the overall alcohol policy in Utah is restrictive and off-putting to outsiders, turning people (and their tourism dollars) away from the state.