In late March, Utah enacted the strictest DUI law in the U.S. when the governor signed into law the nation's first 0.05 blood alcohol content limit for drivers. That's half what it was up until the year 2000, at which time the vast majority of states lowered the legal BAC to 0.08, with all stragglers following suit by 2005. Which begs the question: Will the rest of the country eventually follow Utah's lead?
It's too early to speculate if that's likely, or whether Utah will see a substantial reduction in drunk-driving deaths to convince critics — and there are many — of its merit once the law takes effect at the end of 2018. Following all 50 states' adoption of the 0.08 limit by 2005, the number of fatal crashes in the U.S. involving drunk drivers declined 22 percent to less than 11,000 from nearly 14,000. That sounds great, but those numbers may not tell the whole story.
Lower Limit = Fewer Deaths?
In the dozen years following the adoption of a 0.08 BAC limit by most states, DUI fatalities did indeed plummet to less than 10,000 from more than 13,000. But as lobbyist group the American Beverage Institute correctly notes, in none of those years did the proportion of DUI deaths change much, consistently accounting for less than one-third of all traffic deaths in a given year during that period and never fluctuating more than 1 percent.
The institute's conclusion? Adopting the lower limit did not yield a reduction in the number of deaths attributable to intoxicated motorists; instead, the overall number declined and the DUI number with it. Less than 1 percent of the roughly 32,000 traffic deaths in 2011 were caused by drivers with recorded BACs of between 0.05 and 0.08, the institute offers as an example.
"Over 70 percent of drunk-driving fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels of 0.15 percent or higher," the institute said in a statement. "The average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16 percent — twice the current legal limit."
The net effect, critics say, is that Utah's 0.05 law targets law-abiding social drinkers instead of keeping the focus on grossly intoxicated drivers who continue to cause deadly crashes. Women — who statistically have lower thresholds for alcohol intoxication than men — would be impacted in particular since many would reach the legal limit after just one drink.
U.S. Vs. Europe
A 0.05 BAC limit may be unprecedented in the U.S., but it's common elsewhere. In Europe, BACs range from 0.08 in the U.K. to as low as zero in several Eastern European countries. And while several European nations do have lower percentages of DUI deaths compared with the U.S., it's hit or miss as to whether that correlates to a nation's BAC limit. The Netherlands (0.05), Sweden (0.02) and Finland (0.05) all have significantly lower percentages of drunk-driving deaths, but France and Slovenia both have 0.05 limits and comparable percentages of drunk-driving deaths.
The National Transportation Safety Board has previously endorsed lowering the limit to 0.05 nationwide as part of an aggressive campaign to reduce drunk-driving deaths. At the time, the USA Today editorial board was one of the prominent voices to come out against the proposal, saying it would turn responsible drinkers into criminals while doing little to reduce DUI deaths, as just 8 percent of all drivers involved in fatal accidents had a BAC of 0.05 to 0.08. Instead, the newspaper advised, states should expand the use of ignition interlocks for convicted DUI offenders, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said lower the recidivism rate for drunk drivers by around two-thirds.
Cultural Change Needed
Jane Terry, senior director of government affairs for the National Safety Council, said measures like ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, public awareness campaigns and continued promotion of designated-driver and ride-sharing programs are vital to creating the sort of cultural change necessary to eliminate these deaths. She cited the dramatic shift in the public's general attitude toward seat belt use as well as smoking in restaurants and bars, and agreed that a little cultural shaming of unsafe behaviors goes a long way.
"It's instilling that cultural norm of, 'You just don't drive when you're drinking,' " Terry told .
But like the successful examples of seat belt use and smoking in public buildings, she said, legislation drives the culture shift. She called Utah a "leader for the nation" in taking the DUI issue so aggressively — no doubt spurred on when the state's drunk-driving fatalities doubled in 2015. A 0.05 BAC limit, she indicated, will cause motorists to remain continually aware of how much alcohol they're consuming before getting behind the wheel, and as a result, they'll drink less and be less impaired.
The culture shift takes many years, and there's no magic bullet to bring it about, but it does happen gradually.
"I think this [impaired driving] epidemic ... it takes a suite of solutions to continue to drive down that number," Terry said.
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