Alcohol Sales Up, Driving Fatalities Down After Utah Toughened DUI Standard

Five years after the introduction of a Utah law that lowered the legal limit of blood-alcohol content (BAC) while driving from .08 percent (the federal standard) to .05 percent, alcohol sales continued the same upward trend as was present before the law, but the state has seen a dip in driving fatalities.

The law went into effect near the end of 2018, and in 2019, despite drivers increasing the number of miles traveled, Utah recorded 248 fatalities from 225 fatal crashes, compared to 281 fatalities in 259 fatal crashes recorded in 2016, according to new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Researchers said that equates to a nearly 20 percent reduction in the rate of fatal crashes, and the rate of fatalities was reduced by about 18 percent from 2016 to 2019. The rest of the U.S. saw a reduction of 5.6 percent and 5.9 percent in each of those statistics, respectively, over the same period of time, according to the report.

Though DUI arrests did increase in Utah from 2018 to 2019, the report stated that most of that increase was due to drug-related arrests and not alcohol.The state recorded 8,512 alcohol-related DUI arrests in 2019 compared to the average of the previous five years of about 8,473 arrests per year.

Drunk Driving Fatal Crashes Utah Law
New data shows that Utah saw a decrease in the number of fatal car accidents in the years since it enacted a law that tightened the restrictions on drunk driving. Above, emergency officials stand over the car that was involved after a suspected drunk driver crashed into a crowd of spectators during the Oklahoma State University homecoming parade on October 24, 2015, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. J. Pat Carter/Getty Images

"Utah typically has one of the lowest rates of impaired driving fatalities in the nation, but this study shows that all states have room for improvement," NHTSA Deputy Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff said in a statement."As our study shows, changing the law to .05 [percent] in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired."

While the report states that Utah did not generate any large-scale public awareness campaigns about the new limit, the law gained some local and national attention and it appeared to contribute to an increase in awareness of the new limit—and even some confusion.

Prior to the law taking effect at the end of 2018, a survey revealed that just over a quarter of those polled thought the legal limit had already been lowered to .05 percent. That number increased to 54 percent when the survey was taken again a year later once the law was in effect, the report stated.

The survey found that about 22 percent of people who identified as drinkers said the law caused them to intentionally alter their behavior. The most common change people made because of the new law was making sure they knew what their transportation arrangements would be to return home if they were planning to go out drinking, the report stated.

Utah's law is one of the strictest in the country, with most states still adhering to the federal legal limit of a 0.08 percent BAC. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 29 people die every day in the U.S. in accidents that involve one or more alcohol-impaired drivers.

Update 2/10/22, 2:10 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional context and information from the NHTSA report.