Utah’s Tougher DUI Law Cut Deaths, Study Finds

By: - February 14, 2022 12:00 am

Crosses create a memorial along Highway 33 near Coalinga, Calif., in January, the scene of a fatal crash that killed nine people and was apparently caused by a drunken driver. A federal report found that Utah’s decision to lower its blood alcohol level for drivers reduced fatal crashes. Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee via The Associated Press

Utah’s lower blood alcohol level standard for drivers has resulted in decreased traffic deaths and improved road safety, a new federal study has found.

In 2019, Utah became the first and only state to make it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol level of .05% or higher. All other states and the District of Columbia use a .08% standard.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that Utah’s fatal crash rate dropped by nearly 20% in 2019, compared with 2016.

“As our study shows, changing the law to .05% in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired,” Steven Cliff, the agency’s deputy administrator, said in a news release.

Utah’s drop in crash and fatality rates was a “significant improvement” over the rest of the United States during the year studied, which had a fatal crash and fatality rate reduction of about 6%, the agency said. The neighboring states of Arizona, Colorado and Nevada did not show the same levels of improvement as Utah.

The agency also found that in 2019, more than 22% of those who drank alcohol in Utah indicated that they had changed their behaviors once the law went into effect, such as ensuring that a sober ride was available.

The agency noted that none of the negative economic effects that had been feared with the change from .08% to .05% had occurred. Nor had arrests for drunken driving spiked. In 2016, police in Utah made 8,828 DUI arrests; in 2019, they made 8,512, the report said.

Utah’s decision to lower its blood alcohol level standard to .05% has been controversial. The restaurant and hospitality industry denounced it, saying it went too far. They said it targeted the wrong group of responsible drinkers and would hurt small businesses and tourism.

Supporters, including some traffic safety advocates and the National Transportation Safety Board, say lower limits deter drunken driving and save lives. Many industrialized countries, including Australia, France and Italy, already have a .05% or lower standard.

“This study’s real-world results further prove what we already knew—lowering the BAC limit saves lives in the United States. The hope is that other states will see these results and join Utah in passing legislation for .05,” said safety board member Tom Chapman in a news release.

In the last decade, legislation to lower the blood alcohol content limit has been proposed in half a dozen other states, but has not passed.

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.