By SHEILA WANG • Standard-Examiner staff
Fewer alcohol-related crashes occurred in Utah over the past decade, but these crashes have become deadlier.
The red trend line shows the death tolls due to drunk driving have been on the rise from 2007 to 2016.
In 2017, 31 people died in car crashes involving a drunk driver, a markable decrease compared to the previous three years, according to preliminary data released by the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS). But it still accounted for more than 11 percent of overall traffic deaths across the state last year.
Detailed information on 2017 road crashes has not yet been released by DPS.
In 2016, 32 fatal crashes involving alcohol claimed 36 lives in Utah. Almost half of the tested drunk drivers in fatal crashes were at a high Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level: 0.16 - 0.23. One third of them were at 0.08 – 0.15.
Four fatal crashes occurred in 2016 when the drivers were at a BAC level between 0.01 and 0.07.
In an attempt to improve road safety, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill into law last year that lowers the maximum blood alcohol limit for drivers to .05 percent from 0.08 percent - the strictest in the nation.
The bill, scheduled to take effect on Dec. 30, 2018, has incurred opposition from in and out of the state ever since.
“.05 BAC alone won’t make a difference in solving the problem,” said Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.
She argued that the proportion of DUI fatalities has remained exactly the same nationwide over the past couple of decades, despite the nation’s efforts of lowering legal DUI limit.
The US has gradually lowered the legal BAC threshold to .08 percent under the Department of Transportation’s 2001 Appropriations Act (HR4475).
The drunk driving standard in the US is relatively more lenient, as a majority of countries around the world have adopted the .05 percent BAC law.
But Longwell said it was not the lower BAC law that have saved lives, but that these countries “have done many other things including public education campaign.”
She said the real danger lies with those who are habitually drunk over the legal .08 limit. And they were less likely to “respond to public education campaign, or a lower BAC limit.”
Instead of lowering the BAC threshold, Longwell suggested enforcing the existing DUI laws would be the key.
Utah is among the 25 states that have mandatory ignition interlock provisions for all DUI offenses including first time offenses. That means the driver is required to install an in-car breathalyzer to prove their sobriety prior to starting a vehicle.
Only 10 percent of Utah drivers who have been convicted of DUI installed the in-car breathalyzers in 2015 — the lowest rate across the country. In January-August 2016, Utah's installation rate was as low as 8.3 percent.
Longwell said she was “angry and frustrated” to find Utah passed the .05 BAC law while it was not enforcing its current laws.
Russ Rader with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said since Utah was the first state to do this, the effects haven’t been measured.
“Crash risk is higher for drivers well below .08,” Rader said. “We would expect some effect if states lowered the threshold to .05.”
Both Rader and Longwell stressed law enforcement would be key.