Last month, an online petition asking the Utah Legislature to reconsider its passage of a new alcohol law that would limit the legal blood-alcohol limit to .05, reached its 15,000 signature.
Utah was also a bellwether state in the 1980s to first lower the blood-alcohol content limit for all drivers to a .08. The American Beverage Institute, a lobby group that has run ads against the bill, is behind the petition which originally had a goal of rounding up 10,000 supporters.
Sarah Longwell, ABI’s managing director, testified at an interim committee meeting on June 21, along with representatives from the restaurant and tourism industries. Speaking to City Weekly via phone before the hearing, Longwell was surprised the bill sailed through the session.
“This passed through the legislature so quickly,” she says. “I don’t think they really looked at the numbers.”
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, floor sponsor for House Bill 155, told CW before the session began that the intent was not to punish people who choose to consume alcohol, but instead to make Utah’s roads safer. Citing the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation that all states lower their DUI limit to .05, he believes the new law will save lives.
But others worry the law will punish people who aren’t impaired, harm the restaurant and bar industry and pull resources away from catching drivers who are dangerously intoxicated. The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association staged a rally at the Capitol before Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill, asking for a veto. The association argued that it also wanted to curb alcohol abuse and drunken driving, but lowering the limit to .05 would jeopardize customers who weren’t a risk to the public.
Instead of cracking down on “sober drivers,” Longwell says the state should be more aggressive with its ignition interlock device program, which would keep those who have a history of drunken driving off the roads.
“Enforce the law that you already have on the books,” she says, adding “When you district people from the real problem then you limit the government’s ability to come up with new solutions.”
Utah’s alcohol laws are perpetually in flux. In addition to lowering the DUI level, lawmakers last session also passed a 144-page liquor bill that eliminated the Zion Curtain and raised the alcohol tax by 2 percent.
To commemorate the law taking effect last Saturday, Joel LaSalle, owner of Current Fish & Oyster, hosted a media event wherein the downtown eatery's bar divide was shattered in a cathartic display.
Longwell claims that the public has been overwhelmingly opposed to the new limit.
“It’s obvious that the general public in Utah—especially those in the restaurant and tourism industries—are opposed to the decision of state lawmakers to lower the blood-alcohol arrest level to .05,” she said in a statement at the time the signatures were gathered.
According to a Utah Policy poll released at the end of March, about 45 percent of the population either strongly or slightly favored lowering the DUI limit, while 51 percent strongly or slightly opposed the initiative. When the survey broke down the respondents’ demographics, it revealed that “very active” members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints overwhelmingly indicated they were for the measure.
"We think our customer paid too high of a price," LaSalle said, reflecting on HB 155's provision's—including the higher sales tax and those notorious "These premises are licensed as a restaurant not a bar" signs—adding, "We'll still keep the fight up."