SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A state council studying Utah’s new law setting the country’s strictest DUI threshold is backing away from recommending any changes, despite Gov. Gary Herbert’s wish to soften some penalties following a backlash from the state’s hospitality and ski industry.
The state Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council voted unanimously to support the new 0.05 percent blood alcohol limit scheduled to take effect next year after learning that law enforcement officials and Gov. Gary Herbert’s office disagree on how the state could soften penalties for those convicted of a DUI under the lower limit.
The stalemate makes it tougher for legislators and Herbert, who had hoped to make changes to the law in the wake of the backlash and concerns that the lower limit could target responsible drinkers after one alcoholic beverage.
The law lowering Utah’s DUI blood alcohol limit to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent created a political problem for leaders who worry the strict new limit exacerbates Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-dominated state that’s unfriendly to those who drink alcohol.
Herbert, a Republican, signed the law this spring but said he would call lawmakers into a special session to address unintended consequences. The governor said in September that he’d like to see a tiered punishment system, with lighter penalties for a DUI between 0.05 percent and 0.08 percent.
At Herbert’s request, a committee of prosecutors, law enforcement and officials and others has been working since spring to draft possible changes to the law, which were presented Tuesday to the substance use council.
Paul Boyden, an attorney in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, said the DUI study committee that he helped lead suggested changing the law so that drivers with a 0.05 to 0.07 blood alcohol limit faced some lighter penalties — such as no mandatory jail time — than a full-fledged DUI.
But the penalties would be harsher than Utah’s lesser crime of impaired driving — an offense that Boyden said most drivers arrested for DUI are convicted of because they strike plea deals with prosecutors.
Drivers convicted of having a 0.05 blood alcohol limit would still face fines of at least $1,330, lose their driver’s license for at least 90 days, and be required to have an ignition interlock device for a year.
Ron Gordon, a member of Herbert’s staff and the executive director of the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said the governor felt the plan didn’t lighten the penalties enough.
Herbert, who is traveling in Israel this week, could not be reached for comment, Kirsten Rappleye, a spokeswoman for his office, said the governor’s position hasn’t changed from when he signed the legislation and he would like to see changes made before the bill takes effect.
Proponents of the 0.05 limit, including the National Transportation Safety Board, say people start to become impaired with a first drink and shouldn’t be driving and the lower limit will discourage people from thinking they can drink up to a point and drive safely.
“If we pass 0.05, people will live that would otherwise die if we do nothing,” said Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “If you walk away from it the way it’s written, you can see it will diminish the effectiveness up and down about getting the impaired driver off the road.”
At a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent, a driver may have trouble steering and have a harder time coordinating, tracking moving objects and responding to emergencies, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The new law means a 160-pound man could be over the 0.05 limit after two drinks, while a 120-pound woman could exceed it after a single drink, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, a number of factors, including how much a person has had to eat and how fast they’re drinking, can affect their blood alcohol levels.