SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has signed a bill into law that lowers the maximum blood-alcohol limit for drivers to .05 percent from the current legal threshold of .08 percent.
The law, which takes effect Dec. 30, 2018, is first in the country to lower the standard for impaired drivers from .08 percent.
It also will apply to anyone carrying a dangerous weapon.
Lowering the limit has been controversial, pitting opponents in the tourism and hospitality industries against backers in the health and transportation fields.
The governor’s office was inundated with hundreds of calls on the bill, most of them in opposition.
Herbert defended his decision to sign the bill, saying it came after thorough research and in consultation with multiple stakeholders.
…some public health experts have pushed for stricter limits. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended last year that all states drop blood alcohol levels down to .05, to deter more people from drinking and driving.
Opponents of the law, including the American Beverage Institute and the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said a 120-pound woman could reach the .05 percent limit with little more than one drink. They argued that at that level, a driver is less impaired than one talking hands-free on a cellphone.
They maintained that Utah’s move to the lower limit will criminalize moderate drinkers, hurt tourism and divert law enforcement eyes from the hardcore drinkers who are the real danger on the streets.
Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, told the Deseret News that the lower limit would put independent restaurant owners out of business because their operational margin is already so slim. People will stay home to have a drink with dinner rather than risk the law, she said.
“Obviously, we are very disappointed that he is going to sign this bill despite public outcry,” Corigliano said, adding that calls to Herbert’s office from people were 10 to one against the measure.
The Utah Shooting Sports Council also opposed the law because it restricts the rights of people who legally carry guns in the state.
“Apparently the legislature never saw the connection between this bill and gun rights, and as such, this issue was never debated,” the group said in a form letter it provided to opponents to send to the governor.
But some public health experts have pushed for stricter limits. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended last year that all states drop blood alcohol levels down to .05, to deter more people from drinking and driving.
Although his office has been inundated with calls and the state labeled as punitive in a national advertising campaign by the American Beverage Institute, Herbert said his first obligation as governor is to keep residents and visitors safe.
“Everybody agrees that public safety has got to be at the forefront of what we decide to do when we develop policy,” he said.
Herbert also disputed claims that the law was based on the Mormon religion, which is dominant in Utah and encourages its members to abstain from drinking alcohol. He said several countries in the world, including France and Italy, have .05 percent blood-alcohol limits or lower.
“There’s not many Mormons in Rome and they’re doing it there also,” he said.
The governor did acknowledge that the law could have some unintended consequences and said he planned to call a special session of the legislature in August or September to address such problems.
“I don’t believe the legislation is finished,” he said. “We will still need more thorough consideration on how this new standard is applied.”
Herbert added that anything is on the table for consideration, including pushing “pause” and waiting for other states to drop to a similar limit.
“I know there seems to be some reluctance to be first in the nation, although I would remind everybody we were first in the nation to go from .10 to .08 percent,” he said, and the rest of the country followed suit.