SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s governor signed legislation Thursday giving the predominantly Mormon state the strictest drunken driving 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 lowering the blood alcohol limit for most drivers to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent will save lives.
The change means a 150-pound man would be over the 0.05 limit after two beers, while a 120-pound woman could exceed it after a single drink, though that can be affected by a number of factors, including how much food a person has eaten, according to the American Beverage Institute, a national restaurant group.
Opponents, including the group, had urged Herbert to veto the bill , saying it would punish responsible drinkers and burnish Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-centric place unfriendly to 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.
Restaurant groups said they don’t support drunken driving but a 0.05 percent limit won’t catch drivers who are actually impaired. Plus, the law is “a total attack on the state’s hospitality industry, customers and the tourism industry,” American Beverage Institute executive director Sarah Longwell said.
The group took out full-page ads Thursday in Salt Lake City’s two daily newspapers and USA Today, featuring a fake mugshot under a large headline reading, “Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation.”
But proponents say the law will send a resounding message that people should not drink and drive — no matter how little somebody has consumed. The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety applauded the change, saying it’s a “sensible solution” to deter drunken driving.
If drivers are not impaired, they won’t violate the law, said Rep. Norm Thurston, the bill’s sponsor. The Republican says 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 also said Utah became the first state to lower its blood alcohol limit to 0.08 percent in 1983, and since then tourism has flourished.
Utah’s Tourism Office said it’s not concerned about the law discouraging visitors, noting that a number of foreign countries such as France, Australia and Italy have similar laws and don’t have a problem attracting tourists.
“There’s not many Mormons in Rome, and they’re doing it there,” Herbert quipped Thursday.
In the United States, the blood alcohol limit for most drivers is 0.08 percent, but limits vary among states for commercial drivers or motorists with a conviction of driving under the influence.
The National Transportation Safety Board has encouraged states to drop their blood alcohol levels to 0.05 percent or even lower, but it’s met resistance from the hospitality industry.
Lawmakers in Washington and Hawaii had considered lowering their limits to 0.05 percent this year but both measures appear dead.
In Utah, the new law would take effect on Dec. 30, 2018, just before New Year’s Eve.
In the meantime, Herbert said he plans to call lawmakers into a special legislative session this summer to improve the law. He said he wants legislators to consider a tiered punishment system with less stringent penalties for those convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 to 0.07 percent.
Utah has some of the lowest rates of fatal DUI accidents in the country, and though the population has boomed over the past decade, the DUI arrest rate has dropped.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has taken a neutral position on the measure.
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.”