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In the spring of 2017, I wrote a Did You Know article about Utah where legislators were considering reducing the legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05.

The law passed and went into effect in 2018. In a study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), researchers wrote that, in the years after Utah changed the drunken driving threshold from .08% to .05% blood-alcohol content, the lowest in the nation, the number of crashes and fatalities fell even though drivers logged more miles, according to a February Associated Press article by Sam Metz.

“Changing the law to .05% in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired,” said Dr. Steven Cliff, the agency’s deputy administrator.

In 2019, the first full year with the law in effect, there were 225 fatal crashes and 248 fatalities in Utah. Though drivers logged more miles, that was less than the 259 fatal crashes and 281 fatalities in 2016, the year before Utah changed its law. Crashes per mile driven fell 19.8% from 2016 to 2019 in Utah, which was much more than the 5.6% reduction rates for the entire United States.

Not surprisingly, the drunken driving arrest rate increased after the Utah law went into effect, rising from 76 to 84 arrests per 100,000 residents between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the fourth quarter of 2019. However, survey data included in the study also suggested more people who consume alcohol changed their behavior after the law went 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 ride-hailing service. In 2019, more than 1 in 4 people surveyed said they made sure it would be available.

The revised blood-alcohol level law also appears not to have affected tourism, which was one of the objections by opponents to the change. Alcohol sales and overall visitor spending increased steadily from 2009 to 2019 and didn’t experience a dip after the new law went into effect in 2018. The tourism industry struggled through the pandemic but is slowly rebounding, 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 that supported the lower limit blasted the hospitality industry for what it called “fear-inducing tactics” — including an ad campaign spearheaded by the American Beverage Institute that warned prospective Utah visitors: “Come for vacation, leave on probation.”

“The study outcomes provide a strong rebuttal to these baseless arguments made by opponents of lower BAC laws,” Cathy Chase, the group’s president, said in a statement. Utah’s stronger DUI law is a big step in the right direction for traffic safety. Except for Utah, the rest of the US still uses .08 as the threshold for DWI.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, former vice chairwoman of the National Traffic Safety Board, cited the success in dozens of European and Asian countries that lowered the legal alcohol limit for drivers and reduced the number of drunken driving fatalities. “Although people in those countries continue to drink more per capita than people in the U.S., there are fewer deaths on the roads,” Dinh-Zarr said. “They drink more, and yet they die less because of a .05 BAC.” It’s time for the rest of the US to move to .05 BAC.

— Dave Werner is vice chairman of the Franklin County Traffic Safety Board.

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