SALT LAKE CITY — Four years after Utah's controversial DUI law went into effect, new data shows more of the impact of the legislation.
Utah is the only state in the nation with a blood alcohol content level of .05, which is the strictest. FOX 13 recently requested data from the Utah Department of Public Safety's Highway Safety Office on DUI arrests and crashes since the law went into effect on Dec. 30, 2018.
"In 2019, we did see a change in behavior where people were adjusting to that new law," said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Cameron Roden.
The UHP has seen a spike in alcohol-related fatalities over the past two years, with 61 reported in 2020 and so far in 2021. A report by the Highway Safety Office said when it comes to crashes, only 3.1% of crashes from 2016-2020 involved an alcohol related driver, but "they accounted for almost 21% of fatal motor vehicle crashes during that same period."
DUI arrests statewide remained fairly consistent over the past five years. However, the Highway Safety Office noted an increasing trend in arrests with a BAC of .05 to .079 (the old legal limit was .08). The agency has noted a decline in 2021 arrest numbers.
"There have been arrests in that .05 range but as far as overall the past five years, DUI arrests have stayed constant," said Sgt. Roden. "Right in the same range, which reinforces that officers are making arrests based on impairment instead of focusing on a BAC."
The Highway Safety Office said 41% of DUI arrests had no BAC reported and 11% refused to be tested. Of those with a BAC reported, 43% were above .15. The highest number recorded was .47, six times the legal limit.
"The average arrest was .16 this year... so significantly higher than the .05 and the .08," Sgt. Roden said.
That is something hospitality and restaurant groups pointed out when they objected to lowering the legal limit in the Utah State Legislature. They worried the law would have a chilling effect with people fearful that a glass of wine with dinner could put someone in jail. The groups also said Utah's lone stance with the strictest BAC standard reinforced views of the state's "peculiar" liquor laws.
Police countered that they arrest for DUI based on signs of impairment.
The Utah Restaurant Association said Thursday that it has yet to closely examine the impact of having the nation's toughest anti-drunk driving law on the state's multi-billion dollar tourism industry. That's because restaurants are still dealing with the impact of COVID-19.
"Due to the pandemic and so many other issues that have caused the restaurant industry to struggle, there really hasn't been an effective way to measure the impact of .05 and what we thought would occur, because it occurred for other reasons," Melva Sine, the restaurant association's executive director, told FOX 13.
The sponsor of the .05 DUI law said he is happy with its effectiveness.
"The most important thing is to keep sending a clear reminder that if you're driving, don't drink," Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said. "With the widespread availability of ride sharing and the possibility of designated drivers, there really is no need for anyone to drive after drinking."
Asked if he is considering legislation to push the BAC level even lower, Rep. Thurston told FOX 13: "No."
"In the past, I have contemplated .04 or .02 which some countries in Europe have done, but there is a real lack of data to know whether it would be effective," he said. "But I have no plans to propose any changes at this time."