This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah may be known for tough and sometimes unusual drinking laws. But believe it or not, the federal government says Utah's drunken driving laws actually are too lax.
And it is punishing Utah by restricting how it can spend $7 million in federal highway funds every year.
A bill seeking to correct that by toughening some punishment for repeat DUI offenders, SB150, ran into a traffic jam of questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, and was held for more study.
Linda Hull, policy director for the Utah Department of Transportation, said because Utah DUI laws are not in compliance with federal standards, federal officials now prohibit UDOT from spending $7 million a year that would normally go to road and bridge maintenance.
The money instead goes into a fund earmarked just for road-safety improvements. She said that hurts, because Utah has an annual shortfall of $40 million for maintenance of state highways and $27 million for bridges.
"Every dollar that you spend in preservation saves $10 in rehabilitation and saves $25 in reconstruction," she said.
SB150, sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, would make fixes that federal officials seek, including not allowing repeat offenders to plead to lesser charges of "impaired driving."
However, prosecutors say they would like to keep that option for weak cases where a more serious DUI conviction would be tough to prove.
"If our prosecutors are telling us that having this tool makes our roads safer, that to me is very compelling," said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. "Is it $7 million worth of compelling?"
Hull said the change would not affect the 79 percent of DUI offenders who are first-time violators, and likely would affect only a tiny portion of repeat offenders whose cases are considered weak and urged passage.
But committee members said they want more information on how many offenders it has affected recently, and more information about the effects of the highway fund restrictions. It asked groups to gather data and return.
SB150 also would require repeat offenders to undergo some screening and assessment for substance-abuse treatment, and installation of interlock ignition systems (where breath proves a driver has not been drinking) on all cars owned by the violator at their expense.