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Is Utah’s .05 BAC law a glimpse into Arizona’s future?

The state of Arizona does not fool around when it comes to drinking and driving. Our laws regarding driving under the influence are, let’s be honest, somewhat infamously strict when compared to the rest of the country. But is it possible for a state to create DUI laws that are so restrictive that they cease to be truly beneficial?

This question may have an answer relatively soon, thanks to a new DUI law in Utah which is currently set to go into effect at the end of 2018. 

Utah lowers the BAC threshold

Just in case anyone is unfamiliar with the process by which police officers screen suspected DUI drivers, the most important factor when it comes to determining whether or not a driver is under the influence is their blood alcohol content at the time when they are pulled over. Blood alcohol content, much more commonly referred to as BAC, can be tested in a few different ways. The most common is probably the breathalyzer test – an inadmissible form of this is usually administered roadside if the police officer who pulled you over believes that you might be under the influence - but BAC percentage can also be tested using blood. If your BAC test shows a percentage that is higher than what the state recognizes as proof of intoxication, you will be arrested for a DUI. In Arizona, and at the moment in Utah, this limit is 0.08%.

However, when Utah’s new reduced BAC law comes into effect later this year, their legal limit will drop from .08 to .05 percent BAC, making their law the strictest in the United States. This may seem like a slight and perhaps even insignificant alteration to a lot of people. These percentages might both sound so low that it wouldn’t seem to matter if the limit is lowered to .05, but even that slight adjustment will result in some big changes to the way that Utah handles enforcement. 

The problems presented by the lower BAC level

This lowered legal BAC limit means that police officers in Utah will have to reassess and refine their current DUI screening procedures to recognize levels of .05. The current methodology of conducting balancing tests relies on suspect science and claims to be able to determine levels of .08 or higher. These tests will almost never be able to determine levels as low as .05. While the new law was supported by the Highway Patrol in Utah (which handles roughly one-third of the DUI arrests that occur in the state) who have said that the new limit will have little effect on the way that they look for impaired drivers, other officers in Utah have voiced a degree of concern.

At the lower limit, situations in which a driver who has been pulled over admits to having a drink, but doesn’t smell like alcohol and is not visibly impaired, may become a common occurrence - and one that might complicate procedures for the officers involved, who may have trouble establishing the probable cause needed to test the driver’s BAC level. This begs the question of whether or not a lower limit is truly beneficial or if it will primarily punish responsible drivers who were actually drinking responsibly, as some opponents of the new law have argued. Either way, it will be interesting to see how Utah’s new law influences other states once it goes into effect next year. Could Arizona be headed for a similar change in the near future? Only time will tell.

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