There is interesting traffic safety news from Utah, where The Washington Post is reporting that the state’s rate of deadly auto crashes declined noticeably after it lowered its drunk-driving blood-alcohol limit to .05.
Fatal accidents thankfully are on the decline. But a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analysis revealed that Utah’s decline is much larger than the national average and also larger than its neighboring states.
Perhaps befitting the state that is home to many alcohol-shunning Mormons, Utah lowered its drunk-driving level to .08 in 1983. Many other states, including Mississippi and Louisiana, still use a .08 blood-alcohol limit, but Utah then reduced its limit to .05 in 2018. At the time an alcohol trade group criticized the move, predicting it would not save lives, make criminals out of moderate, responsible social drinkers and hurt Utah’s tourism and hospitality industries.
The trade group has missed at least two of those three predictions. The federal study counted the number of fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled in each state. Researchers then compared the 2016 and 2019 numbers, and Utah came out looking unbelievably good.
The rate of fatal crashes fell nearly 20% in Utah over the three years. Nationwide, the decline was 5.6%. Among Utah’s neighbors, Nevada was down nearly 10% and Colorado was down nearly 4%. Arizona’s rate of fatal crashes rose by 3%.
Even more compelling, researchers said the number of Utah fatal crashes that involved alcohol declined. That’s a pretty good signal that more people, aware that a .05 drunk-driving number is pretty low, decided it wasn’t worth drinking before driving, or waited an hour or two after having some drinks to start their car.
All this happened without hurting Utah’s tourism and hospitality industries, according to the NHTSA study.
To put real numbers to it, in 2016 there were 281 traffic fatalities in Utah. In 2019, according to federal statistics, Utah residents drove more miles than they did three years prior. But only 248 people died.
That’s a enviable trend. It is even more interesting when you recall many news stories over the past two years about a noticeable rise in alcohol- and drug-related deaths that are being blamed on stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. This leads to the question of whether the national count of traffic fatalities has continued to decline.
Another pertinent question is whether Mississippi, Louisiana and other states should consider lowering their drunk-driving levels from .08. That’s a tough call. But a national comparison says they should.
In 2019, Mississippi had 200,000 fewer residents than Utah — but our state’s 643 traffic deaths were more than two times higher. That year, Mississippi also had the second-highest rate of traffic fatalities per 100,000 people; and the highest rate per 1 million miles traveled.
There are certainly other factors besides alcohol involved in traffic deaths. But Utah’s move apparently has made a difference and saved lives. Other states should look into this.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal