Utah’s Legislature sent Gov. Gary Herbert a measure lowering the state’s legal threshold for drunken driving to a .05 percent blood-alcohol content Wednesday – a bill that will make Utah’s DUI threshold the lowest in the nation if Herbert signs it into law as expected.
Herbert’s public information officer, Kirsten Rappleye, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the governor “is supportive” of the bill as well as a companion measure legislators approved Wednesday that will ease the “Zion Curtain” barrier requirements for restaurants that serve alcohol.
“He doesn’t have an expected signing timeline yet, except that he must sign within 20 days of the session adjourning (on Thursday),” Rappleye wrote.
The DUI bill has also raised the hackles of alcohol-friendly opponents who have already been long at odds with the state’s existing .08 percent BAC limit.
Utah maintains a reputation as antagonistic to alcohol drinkers because of the teetotaling practices of the state’s Mormon majority, they argue, even though the .08 percent limit has been in force in areas of the country where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a significant social influence since the federal government required tying highway funds to the DUI standard more than a decade ago.
American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell said in a statement to the Associated Press on Wednesday night that the proposal will do little to make roads safer because more than 77% of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Utah come from drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 and above.
"Utah legislators missed an opportunity ... to target the hard-core drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities and instead decided to criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Longwell said.
The intended result?
Mark Baruffi, the owner of Cedar City’s Centro Woodfired Pizza, said he expects a lowered limit to have a negative impact on his business, which is popular with out-of-town visitors including those who come for the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“It makes it that much harder for people to make the decision to even purchase that one drink,” Baruffi said. “It’s not our job to be the conscience of a customer or monitor their drinking. If anything, I don’t see what the point of it is. Are (officials) trying to increase state revenue from DUIs? Now they know that they can watch any restaurant that serves alcohol and have a pretty good chance of any customer that leaves for a DUI. … It’s a law that I think reflects negatively on the state more than any of the other things that have gone on with the liquor laws here.”
Maria Twitchell, the director of the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau, said visitation may be negatively affected but officials are waiting to see what the real impact may be.
“We are concerned because it’s the lowest in the country and we’re trying to be good hosts in a national and international market,” Twitchell said. “There’s concern that, because it’s so low, even food sales might be affected. A reduction in drinking will lead to a reduction in food sales. That can affect our tax base as we rely on food sales.”
But the bill’s backers say the measure isn’t about frustrating those who drink, it’s about protecting the state’s drivers. Other people on the road who are drug-impaired may already be practicing illegal behavior by taking those substances, but alcohol is legally available to adults.
Sending the right message
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who sponsored the measure in the state’s House of Representatives, said the limit is important because a person starts to become impaired with the first drink.
"That's the problem with our current law – it sends the message that you can drink up to a certain point and then drive," Thurston said Wednesday.
He notes a number of foreign countries have blood-alcohol content thresholds at .05 or lower. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states a driver with a blood-alcohol content of .05 percent may have trouble steering and have a harder time coordinating, tracking moving objects and responding to emergencies.
“"That's the problem with our current law – it sends the message that you can drink up to a certain point and then drive."”
Follow Kevin Jenkins on Twitter: @SpectrumJenkins.