This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I work at the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB. You may have seen those four yellow letters on our jackets at the scene of a truck or train crash, or when we search for the "black box" in plane wreckage. Our job is to ask why, find the answers and recommend ways to prevent the next tragedy. Sometimes, that is why I visit a state.
So it was a pleasure to visit Utah recently not to investigate a tragedy, but to help prevent them. I came because your state is considering a measure to save lives by preventing alcohol-impaired driving.
In 1983, Utah led the way in passing a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) law, after which every state followed suit. Utah may once again lead the way in saving lives. Utah is considering a bill to change the BAC for drivers from .08 to .05. Fewer alcohol-impaired drivers means fewer accidents, fewer deaths and fewer disabling injuries. Last Friday, legislators approved the bill out of committee with a 9-2 vote, recommending consideration by the entire Utah House.
At the State Capitol, I shared real-world findings from countries that lowered their BAC level to .05 or lower (and there are about 100 such countries, including Ireland, Canada and Australia). In these countries, a lower BAC did not deter people from drinking, but it did deter people from driving after drinking. In other words, with a .05 law, people who were drinking were less likely to get behind the wheel.
I enjoyed talking with law enforcement officials while I was in Utah and shared data showing a .05 BAC law affects behavior so fewer people are willing to drive after drinking.
In 2013, the NTSB, an independent accident investigation agency, took a fresh look at why 10,000 Americans are dying in impaired driving accidents every year. We recommended that all 50 states have a .05 or lower BAC. Utah has one of the lowest numbers of alcohol fatalities in the nation, but Utahns are still dying and being injured needlessly in alcohol-related crashes.
It's clear that lowering the BAC will prevent crashes on Utah roads, but those with other agendas want to block this proven, lifesaving measure. Last month, a spokesperson representing alcoholic beverage interests had an op-ed in this newspaper in which she made claims that just don't hold up to scrutiny.
The spokesperson wrote that a .05 BAC law would not be effective because high BAC drivers and repeat offenders are the cause of most alcohol-impaired accidents. But a .05 BAC law is effective for that very reason. It reduces the number of all drinking drivers on the road at all BAC levels high and low so there is a broad deterrent effect. We know that drivers between 0.05 BAC and 0.079 BAC are seven times more likely to be involved in a single vehicle fatal crash than drivers without any alcohol in their system.
The spokesperson also suggested that a .05 BAC law would be neither popular nor effective. However, a recent national survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed that 63 percent of Americans support a .05 BAC. Why? Because people understand that fewer impaired drivers means safer roads. We know that reducing the BAC to 0.05 likely would reduce the number of fatal alcohol crashes by 11 percent potentially saving 1,790 lives nationwide every year.
The .05 BAC law is not about drinking. It is about separating drinking from driving. It is about preventing crashes, injuries and deaths.
Let's separate drinking from driving. Let's save lives.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, Ph.D., MPA, is vice chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.