News accounts about Utah’s decision to lower the drunk-driving threshold to a .05 blood alcohol level have been predictable. Once the governor signed the bill, the Associated Press and others felt obligated to begin their stories by noting this was happening in “predominantly Mormon” Utah.
Yes, that is a true statement, and yes, it is true the state in fact is lowering the threshold to .05. It’s just the connection between the two that’s a bit sketchy.
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Having sat through legislative hearings and spoken with many lawmakers about the bill, I can attest The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never came up as a motivating factor, nor did it, as an institution, opine on the bill. Instead, the motivation came from the National Transportation Safety Board, which had recommended a .05 level based on research, and which sent a representative to Utah to lobby for the bill.
The news stories illustrate a truism about the state. It probably never will outgrow its reputation, especially when it does something that seems so … well … religious.
I’m of the opinion that reputation is a good thing. I’m also of the opinion it’s best to ignore the people who worry otherwise.
It’s worth pointing out that we’ve been to this rodeo before.
Utah was the first state to lower its legal drunken driving level to .08 in 1983.
And we heard all the same worries back then. Instead, the National Parks Service reports that visits to Utah parks rose steadily through the early ‘80s. The ski industry grew, as well, with an 80 percent increase in “skier days” between 1982 and 2014.
By the late ‘90s, Congress was toying with the idea of telling each state it had to either follow Utah’s lead or risk losing federal highway dollars. In response, an attorney for the American Beverage Institute wrote an op-ed that said “.08 is not a reasonable arrest level for most people.”
He trotted out the mythical 120-pound woman who would reach that level after only “two six-ounce glasses of wine.”
“Is this a problem drinker? I don’t think so,” he said.
Actually, she is. But that sounded like a sort-of reasonable argument at a time when 37 states still had legal limits of .10 or higher.
Kind of like how the same arguments about .05 might sound sort of reasonable today.
Until you shake the cobwebs out of your head and consider one recent peer-reviewed study that noted, “The World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the European Commission, the European Transport Safety Council, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine all have policies supporting a 0.05 BAC or lower as the illegal limit.”
It’s also the law in at least 91 nations. So, who is sounding silly now?
The United States has a strange reluctance to crack down on drunken driving, even in the face of carnage. We hear how most drunk drivers who cause accidents have blood-alcohol levels far in excess of the legal limit, conveniently ignoring peer-reviewed studies, such as one recently published by The Society for the Study of Addiction, that said, “The research indicates that virtually all drivers are impaired regarding at least some driving performance measures at a 0.05 BAC. The risk of being involved in a crash increases significantly at 0.05 BAC and above.”
Val Hale, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, seemed to hit the right note recently when he told the combined editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL, “There’s certainly some temporary attention given to it (the new law), but long term I can’t see it becoming a negative.”
That’s because foreign visitors to Utah likely come from places that already have either the same limit or something stricter.
And, frankly, a lot of visitors from other parts of the U.S. come here thinking they already know the place by its reputation. That isn’t going to change no matter what the state does.