Utah DPS: DUI crashes, fatalities down, but arrests remain consistent under .05 blood alcohol law

ST. GEORGE — Authorities say there has been a drop in alcohol-related crashes reported in Utah in the wake of a new law that lowered the state’s blood alcohol content standard, though a direct correlation has yet to be determined.

Utah Highway Patrol troopers at the scene of a rollover on state Route 59, Washington County, Utah, Feb. 20, 2019 | File photo courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

According to a recent report released by the Utah Department of Public Safety, the number of traffic-related fatalities and injuries are down significantly since the Dec. 31 implementation of Utah’s 0.05-percent blood alcohol level limit, the strictest limit in the nation.

During the first quarter of 2018, there were 418 alcohol-related crashes that resulted in 10 deaths, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street told St. George News. One year later, the numbers in that same time frame dropped to 236 alcohol-related crashes resulting in three deaths.

Whether the drop in alcohol-related crashes and deaths directly relates to the lower blood alcohol level limit remains to be determined, Street said, noting that it will take time to determine a direct correlation.

Street said the Department of Public Safety will have a clearer picture when second quarter numbers come in, but determining the long-term effects of the law may take more time.

While the drop in crash numbers may not be linked to any single issue, enforcement blitzes and safety campaigns have likely played a role. The Department of Public Safety has so far conducted more than 370 DUI, overtime and seat belt enforcement shifts during the “100 Deadliest Days of Driving,” which runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

DUI arrests remain flat

While crashes are down, Street said the number of arrests have not gone up since the new law went into effect. In fact, he said, the number of DUI arrests across the state has continued to drop since 2010.

Even with the legislative change in blood alcohol limit, Street said it has always been a practice to make arrests based on observed impairment instead of focusing on a predetermined BAC level. This approach enables law enforcement officers to identify and arrest both alcohol-impaired and drug-impaired drivers along Utah’s roadways.

“It’s about safety for every motorist driving through or in Utah,” Street said. “Anything that increases safety and reduces the number of traffic-related deaths is what we focus on, and that isn’t going to change.”

A Nissan sedan is damaged after a crash that police say was caused by DUI, St. George, Utah, Oct. 4, 2018 | File photo by Spencer Ricks, St. George News

For officers with the St. George Police Department, the question of whether DUI arrests have increased as a result of the legislative change is anything but straightforward, department spokeswoman Tiffany Atkin said.

Calls that result in DUI arrests have several variables to consider, she explained, meaning a straight “yes” or “no” answer to the question wouldn’t be applicable.

As an example, Atkin said DUI arrests can be made at crash scenes when officers have reason to believe a driver is impaired, but that wasn’t the initial reason for the call.

“It’s not like the officers are out there looking for intoxicated drivers to see if they test below the 0.05, but they focus on impairment levels” Atkin said.

Overall, Atkin said, DUI arrest numbers from the St. George Police Department have remained consistent, with no notable change since the law went into effect.

While it may take time to assess the ultimate outcome of the lower blood alcohol limit, the Department of Public Safety makes one thing clear: “Impaired driving is 100% preventable – there is no excuse for choosing to drink and drive.”

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