Deaths and crashes linked to drunken driving dropped almost 20% in Utah, the only state with a lower legal limit of .05, according to a new study.
The conclusions are a piece of encouraging news for highway safety, where the number of deaths rose at the highest rate ever recorded during the pandemic, despite fewer cars on the road, shorter distances driven, and more safety features in new cars.
It found crashes declined 19.8 percent and fatalities dipped 18.3 percent. The numbers are from before the pandemic, comparing 2016, the last full year before the new law passed and gained public attention, and 2019, the first full year under the .05 limit.
NHTSA concluded the change produced “demonstrably positive impacts on highway safety in Utah.” It also claimed the concerns of the tourism and entertainment industries were not borne out: Sales continued increasing after the Utah law took effect, and “none of the potential negative effects of concern came to fruition.”
Utah is the only state in the nation to set the red line below .08 grams per deciliter, which is standard nationwide. In some states, drivers exhibiting other indications of impairment can still face penalties.
The state had previously reported an average of 29.8 DUI arrests every day.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving called the results “promising” but warned the pandemic may interrupt the progress.
“We know risky driving behavior increased nationwide in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, and we anticipate a rise in drunk driving deaths in the majority of states when the final fatality data is available,” said MADD president Alex Otte.
The pandemic-era numbers are striking: Crashes spiked 12 percent in the first three months of 2021, according to recently-released NHTSA numbers, killing an estimated 31,720 people.
Full-year numbers are expected in the spring, and prior-year figures show about one in three traffic fatalities is linked to an impaired driver, according to NHTSA.
In addition to impaired driving, many of the deaths were linked to reckless triple-digit speeding made possible by less-congested roads and drops in seat belt usage.
“The effects of the pandemic are tremendous,” Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CNN in a recent interview on pandemic-era highway deaths.
It was the NTSB, prior to Homendy joining in 2018, which in 2013 recommended the .05 limit adopted by Utah. It outlined a multipronged path towards eliminating alcohol-driven deaths and collisions, including special courts and programs to reduce repeat offenses, expanding the use of ignition interlock devices, and high-visibility enforcement.
Now, some other states are considering following Utah’s lead. There is legislation drafted in both New York and Hawaii, according to MADD. It said the Hawaiian proposal passed the Senate but failed in the House last year.