Utah’s governor announced Thursday that he will sign legislation giving the predominantly Mormon state the strictest DUI threshold in the country, a change that restaurant groups and representatives of the ski and snowboard industry say will hurt tourism.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said he plans to approve the measure lowering the blood alcohol limit for most drivers to .05 percent from .08 percent. Herbert said the new measure will save lives.
Opponents had urged him to veto the bill, saying it would punish responsible drinkers and burnish Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-majority state that’s unfriendly for those who drink alcohol.
“People are going to try to say this is a religious issue, and that is just absolutely false. This is a public safety issue,” the governor, who is Mormon, said at a news conference.
Proponents said it will send a resounding message that people should not drink and drive — no matter how little somebody has had to drink.
Restaurant groups, including the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Assn., Utah Restaurant Assn. and national American Beverage Institute, said they don’t support drunken driving but a .05 limit won’t catch drivers who are actually impaired.
Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican who sponsored the measure, said it will make people think twice about drinking and driving.
If drivers are not impaired, they won’t get a DUI, Thurston said, because police won’t measure someone’s blood alcohol level until they have seen visible signs of impairment and the person fails a field sobriety test.
He’s also pointed out that Utah led the country in 1983 by becoming the first state to lower its blood alcohol limit to .08 percent, and since then, tourism has flourished.
Utah’s Tourism Office said it’s not concerned about the measure discouraging visitors, noting that a number of foreign countries such as France and Australia have similar laws and don’t have a problem attracting tourists.
Across the country, the blood-alcohol content limit for most drivers is .08, but its limits vary among states for commercial drivers or drivers who have had a past DUI conviction.
For several years, the National Transportation Safety Board has encouraged states to drop their blood-alcohol content levels to .05 or even lower, though local officials have not adopted the standards in part because of pressure from the hospitality industry.
Lawmakers in Washington and Hawaii had considered lowering their blood-alcohol limits to .05 this year, but both measures appear dead.
The new threshold in Utah would take effect Dec. 30, 2018, just before New Year’s Eve.
The American Beverage Institute says a .05 limit would net a 150-pound man a DUI after two beers, while a 120-pound woman could get one after a single drink, though that can be affected by a number of factors, including how much food has been consumed.
Even before the measure, drivers in Utah with a blood alcohol level below .08 still could be charged if law enforcement could show the person was under the influence of alcohol and it impaired his or her ability to safely drive.
Utah has some of the lowest rates of fatal DUI accidents in the country. The population has been booming over the past decade, particularly as more people move in from other states, but the DUI arrest rate has dropped.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said it does not support the measure and instead has taken a neutral position.
J.T. Griffin, a government affairs officer for the group, said in a statement that MADD is focusing on “countermeasures that work, such as ignition interlock laws for all drunk driving offenders and sobriety checkpoints.”