Resilience Smart Cities

Utah changed its drunk driving threshold and crash fatality numbers dropped

The scene of a fatal auto accident at the intersection of Cass and Grand River in Detroit MI on December 20th at approximately 5:50pm. Brian Sevald/ iStock

Story at a glance

  • In 2017, the governor of Utah enacted a law that lowered the legal blood alcohol concentration to .05 percent from the previous limit of .08 percent.
  • New research found that the law resulted in a nearly 20 percent reduction in fatal car crashes.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates every day 29 people in the country die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.

The state of Utah put in place the strictest drunken driving laws in the country five years ago and new car crash data has shown the law likely contributed to saving multiple lives. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released new traffic death data for the state of Utah after the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit was lowered to .05 percent, signed into law in 2017 and taking effect Dec. 30, 2018. The results of a five-year study found fewer car crashes overall and less driver alcohol involvement in Utah.  

In 2019, after the lower BAC limit was enacted, Utah recorded 225 fatal car crashes and 248 fatalities, despite Utah drivers tracking an increase in vehicle miles traveled, while in 2016 there were 259 fatal crashes and 281 fatalities recorded.  

Researchers calculated the fatal crash rate reduction from 2016 to 2019 in Utah was 19.8 percent and the fatality rate reduction was 18.3 percent.  


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Interestingly, researchers also found that a survey conducted by the state of Utah in 2018 found that 26.6 percent of drinkers and 12.6 percent of nondrinkers thought the legal BAC was .05, even though the new law had not yet taken effect.  

Then again in 2019, a survey by the state of Utah found 22.1 percent of drinkers indicated they had changed their behaviors since the lower BAC limit was enacted. 

“The most common behavior modification reported was making sure transportation was available when drinking away from home. The data reviewed for this study indicated none of the negative effects some projected were realized,” said the report. 

Researchers said the state’s alcohol sales didn’t suffer despite the lower BAC limit, as alcohol sales and per capita consumption actually increased, as did tourism and tax revenues. Arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) also did not increase markedly after the law took effect. 

“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. As our study shows, changing the law to .05% in Utah saved lives and motivated more drivers to take steps to avoid driving impaired,” said Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, in a statement. 

Back in 1998, former President Bill Clinton initiated a nationwide standard to establish what would be defined as the notion of legal intoxication. Clinton called for a .08 percent national limit of BAC or higher to be established as a federal standard. As a result of that, all states now formally adopt .08 percent BAC level as their standard, but some have enacted different additional statues, like Utah. 

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, all states but Utah define driving with a BAC at or above .08 percent as a crime. However, 44 states and Washington, D.C. have increased penalties for drivers convicted at higher BACs.  

Drunk and impaired driving is a serious health risk in the U.S., as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says every day, 29 people in the country die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. That translates to one death every 50 minutes, with an annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totaling more than $44 billion.  


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