SALT LAKE CITY — Utah residents and representatives from local restaurants and bars rallied inside the state Capitol on Friday to urge Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill that would give Utah the strictest DUI threshold in the country.
About 100 people, including residents decked out in green for St. Patrick’s Day, said lowering the blood alcohol limit to .05 percent, down from .08 percent, would punish responsible drinkers and burnish Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-majority state that’s unfriendly for those who drink alcohol.
The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, which represents 89 restaurants and organized the rally, does not support drunk driving, said executive director Michele Corigliano.
But Corigliano said the proposal won’t stop drunk driving and instead “is a simply message bill, and that message is Utah is not tolerant of people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner.”
Herbert has said he’s supportive of the bill but stopped short of saying he’ll sign it. His spokesman Paul Edwards said in a statement Friday that the governor is reviewing public safety data and will meet with the hospitality industry next week.
Herbert has until March 29 to act on the bill.
Bill sponsor Rep. Norm Thurston, a Provo Republican, says he doesn’t think it will hurt tourism but it would make people think twice about drinking and driving.
Thurston said if drivers aren’t impaired, they won’t get a DUI because police won’t measure someone’s blood alcohol level until they’ve seen visible signs of impairment and the person fails a field sobriety test.
Utah led the country in 1983 by becoming the first state to lower its blood alcohol limit to .08 percent, and since then tourism has flourished, Thurston noted this week.
Across the country, the blood-alcohol content limit for most drivers is 0.08, but limits vary among states for commercial drivers or drivers who have had a past DUI conviction.
For several years, the National Transportation Safety Board has encouraged states to drop their blood-alcohol content levels to 0.05 or even lower, though local officials have not adopted the standards, in part because of pressure from the hospitality industry.
Ski Utah, which represents Utah’s ski and snowboard industry, and the Utah Restaurant Association, also said this week they’ve asked Herbert to issue a veto.
The American Beverage Institute, a national restaurant group, took out full-page ads opposing the measure in Thursday editions of The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. One ad was a mock “thank you note” from neighboring Colorado, which competes with Utah’s outdoors-driven tourism economy.
Concerns about disrupting Utah’s tourism come on the heels of Utah’s loss of a major outdoor recreation show over the state’s public lands stance. It also follows another major liquor bill Utah passed this year easing rules that keep restaurant customers from seeing alcoholic drinks being prepared. The required barriers in some restaurants have been nicknamed “Zion Curtains,” a reference to the Mormon church, which teaches its members to avoid alcohol.
Most Utah residents and legislators are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and do no drink. Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said Friday that’s why Utah shouldn’t be pioneering alcohol legislation because it’s “like asking the NBA to come up with new rules for lacrosse.”
The American Beverage Institute reports the proposal would net a 150-pound man a DUI after two beers, while a 120-pound woman could get one after a single drink, though a number of factors could impact that.
Edward Staley of Riverton staged a small counter-protest Friday, wearing a neck brace and holding a sign that said, “Victim of a Drunk Driver.” Staley, 66, said he was hit by a drunk driver in 1988 and his resulting spine and brain injuries left him disabled. He said he doesn’t know the blood alcohol level of the man who hit him, but while some people may be able to safely drive at .05, others may have no way of knowing their tolerance.
“I’m not saying people should be restricted from getting alcohol,” Staley said. But, “driving, even driving without impairment, it’s not a right. It’s a privilege.”