While the debate surrounding Utah’s newly lowered legal DUI limit has focused around factual basis and tourism concerns, those who will enforce it are focused on something else: how to enforce a legal limit that field sobriety tests may not be able to detect.
Effective December 30, 2018, Utah will have the lowest legal limit in the nation, .05. Representative Norm Thurston sponsored House Bill 155. He said that one of the most common criticisms, that the bill is meant to discourage drinking, is a misconception.
“The one thing I hope gets emphasized, that hasn't gotten enough emphasis, is that this is about impairment. So it’s not about trying to get people to drink less, or a puritanical thing,” Thurston said. “It’s really about people to not drive while they’re impaired.”
Thurston said that while looking for empirically proven ways to make highways safer, he heard about the idea of lowering the legal limit from the National Transportation Safety Board. When he saw the data behind it, he found it compelling, and it ultimately led him to sponsor the bill.
Thurston cited data from the World Health Organization showing that the risk of involvement in a crash increases significantly above BAC levels of .04. In their world report on road traffic injury prevention, the organization recommends setting the legal limit at equal to or less than 0.05.
Though fewer than half of countries worldwide have laws in line with this recommendation, an 86% majority of European countries do.
“Let’s look at the data and the evidence, and let’s see what works and let’s pursue things that are known to work. To me, this has been an exciting opportunity to actually do evidence-driven policy making because there’s so much data and evidence out there on highway safety.”
This is a stark contrast from the perspective of the American Beverage Institute. After the bill’s passing was announced, the institute released a statement strongly condemning Governor Herbert for making what they said was an ill-advised decision which was not supported by any evidence that it would improve traffic safety.
“In order to solve the drunk driving problem in this country, we have to target the people that are out there killing people and that is not somebody who is at .05,” Longwell said. “This bill, currently, is a distraction. It is a way to criminalize perfectly responsible behavior. It is about being anti-alcohol, not anti-drunk-driving. Because you are not drunk at .05.”
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute. Longwell said that the data behind this bill doesn’t necessarily mean that its conclusion is correct.
She said that European countries have very different cultures than the U.S. surrounding both driving and drinking. In many European countries, teens are legally drinking at eighteen years old, the same age most countries allow them to start driving. Public transit is also generally more common, making driving less of a necessity. These factors all contribute to a stricter drinking and driving policy.
Another major point Longwell made was that, yes, a driver at .05 is measurably impaired — but so are a lot of people.
“This what people don’t understand, is that you are also impaired listening to the radio,” Longwell said. “They’re using a scientific definition of impairment. You are more impaired driving over the age of 65. You are more impaired driving under the age of 21. You are more impaired if a bug is in the car. You’re more technically impaired doing all of those things than at this legal limit of .05.”
Comparison between different kinds of distracted and impaired driving is complicated; a drunk driver’s impairments are physical, while a distracted driver’s are generally mental. But Longwell’s point stands: how does driving at a .05 level compare to driving with other distractions?
Lieutenant Brad Franke has been with the Logan City Police Department for 27 years. In that time, he said he’s made several dozen impaired driving stops. The process starts when someone is pulled over for conspicuous driving. But from there, it’s not always what you’d expect.
“Most of the time it is something else. It’s much more rare to have someone who is impaired versus distracted driving or something else. Most people that are weaving in their lanes or making wide turns are on a phone, taking care of a child or eating a hamburger while they’re flipping through the newspaper or something while they’re driving. That’s really the biggest problem we see on the roads every day.”
In the last four years, drunk driving caused 158 deaths in the state of Utah. Speeding, failure to yield, and distracted driving caused 759, more than four times as many.
If the person has been drinking, an officer would have to smell alcohol or notice something that allowed them to build a case to the point that they could perform a field sobriety test.
It’s standard procedure to do the sobriety test before the breathalyzer, to avoid biasing the officer’s perception with the breathalyzer results. Franke said that for those who are noticeably impaired during a field sobriety test, the breathalyzer results usually fall above a certain level.
“It’s very difficult to gauge a person, often times, right at the .08. Point zero eight is that level where people are just starting to show signs,” Franke said. “For me personally, if I can run through tests and I see and I get all of my points, and I go, ‘I know this person’s been drinking,’ they’re almost always over a .10.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to determine a person at .05,” Franke said. “I don’t believe that our uniformed field sobriety testing procedures — that we have all been trained and utilize — will indicate a person at .05. I don’t think so.”
He added that this is something officers have been discussing — how they’re going to enforce a legal BAC limit that is, as far as measurable impairment goes, nearly impossible to detect.
For Franke, this is a law that he will have to enforce. He said he’s seen a lot of changes in the law during his nearly three decade career, some that were good and some that were bad. He said that and the rest of the police department will do their best to enforce this new law, just like the others before it.
However, when I asked him what he thinks really matters when it comes to keeping people safe, it wasn’t the difference between a BAC of .08 and .05.
“We just — we take it for granted because we do it so often, but there’s very few things that we do in our life that’s so dangerous to other people,” Franke said. “We’ve got to focus on our driving. We’ve got to stop being distracted by drugs, by alcohol, by texting, by eating, by doing makeup — all the other things — and focus on that task at hand. And stop hurting each other. That’s really what it comes down to: the responsibility when you’re in a car.”
- The World Health Organization’s world report on road traffic injury prevention
- Global Health Observatory: Blood alcohol concentration limit for drivers
- 2nd Annual - Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice
- Utah Department of Public Safety’s Crash Data and Statistics