On DUI Standards, How Low Should You Go?

Last month, the Utah legislature passed, and Utah’s governor signed, a measure reducing Utah’s standard for driving under the influence of alcohol.  Under the new Utah standard, which takes effect in December 2018, Utah’s threshold for drunk driving will be a blood alcohol level of .05 percent.  In Ohio, and most states, you can be charged with drunk driving if your minimum blood alcohol limit is .08 percent.

two-cups-of-beer-in-barIn Utah, the debate about lowering the level was a familiar one — on one side, people who have been personally affected by a drunk driver, as well as health and transportation advocates who think that lower standards will produce safer roadways and fewer accidents, and on the other, people in the tourism and hospitality industries who think that tougher standards will hurt their businesses.  The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all states lower their limits to .05 percent, contending that the stricter rules will deter people from drunk driving.  The American Beverage Institute, on the other hand, argued that a 120-pound woman could be at the .05 level after only one drink, and that a person driving with a .05 blood alcohol level is less impaired that a person driving while talking hands-free on a cell phone.

Part of the area of disagreement is that blood alcohol levels are a variable measure of illegal intoxication — because the same quantities of alcohol consumed will affect different people differently.  Men typically can drink more than women without hitting the limit, and heavier people can drink more than lighter people.  And, some people also question whether lower standards really will deter dangerous drunk driving, rather than simply ensnaring people who had two beers with friends after work — when the real road hazards are the people who are grossly intoxicated and are far over both the .05 percent limit and the standard .08 limit.  Often, the most serious accidents seem to involve serial violators who have been arrested multiple times for DUI violations but never seem to be deterred from drinking and driving, no matter what the standard is.

Drunk driving is one of those areas where there has been a sea change in public perception in my lifetime.  For years, the legal limit in most states was .15 percent, and drunk drivers were often tolerated by police — who might just escort the impaired driver home — and even were the subject of TV sitcom humor.  The recognition that drunk driving is dangerous and can be fatal, is unfair to other drivers, and needs to be stopped was a positive development.  And while some chronic cases keep drinking and driving, I think most people are very sensitive to the need to avoid even putting themselves, and other drivers, at risk, and either go with designated drivers or with Ubering it after a night on the town.

Is .05 percent the right standard?  I don’t know, but I think anything that gets people talking about drunk driving, and thinking about whether they should have one more drink and then drive, is a good thing.

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