In late 2018, a new DUI law took effect in Utah that lowered the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit from 0.08% to 0.05%. The law also stated that anyone who “operates a motor vehicle in a negligent manner causing the death of another” will have committed criminal homicide, a felony.
Before the new law was introduced, West Jordan Police Officer Kelly Zierse said he saw a lot more reports of DUI-related crashes or fatalities.
“Beforehand, almost every weekend, we were getting [possibly] 30 or 40 reports of drunk drivers a night, sometimes even more,” he said. “This new law has really brought a decline in those calls, about people driving drunk on the streets.”
In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a study that examined the effects of the new DUI law, which originally passed in 2017. Of note, the state recorded a 19.8% decrease in fatal crashes and a 18.3% decrease in fatalities between 2016, the last full year before the law was passed, and 2019, the first full year with the law in effect.
“Overall, the study’s findings indicate that passage of the .05 per se law had demonstrably positive impacts on highway safety in Utah,” the NHTSA wrote. “Similarly, DUI arrests for alcohol did not climb sharply after the law went into effect as some had feared.”
Although statewide DUI-related arrests fell below 10,000 in fiscal year 2019, according to the 18th annual DUI report submitted to the legislature by the Utah Department of Public Safety, the arrest total increased by 537, or 5%, in fiscal year 2020.
“It is still too soon to see any definitive impacts of changing the statutory BAC level to .05,
though there does appear to be a slight increase in arrests after the implementation date,” the report said.
The department also noted a decrease in alcohol-related DUI crashes, injuries, and fatalities after the law took effect in 2019.
“Crashes decreased 2% from [calendar year] 2018 to 1,921 in [calendar year] 2019; injuries decreased 5% to 1,167 in [calendar year] 2019; and fatalities dropped 60% to 19 in [calendar year] 2019 — the lowest number in over ten years,” the report said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns affected DUI statistics in other areas of the country. Beginning mid-March 2020, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recorded 1,745 cases of drunk driving in 12 months — a 21.5% decrease from the previous 12-month period.
In Utah, however, more people died in alcohol-related crashes during the pandemic. According to data from the Department of Public Safety, 41 people died in alcohol-related accidents in 2020, and 52 deaths occurred in 2021.