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SALT LAKE CITY — A state legislative committee took its first swing Wednesday at possibly tweaking Utah's controversial new law dropping the legal blood alcohol content for driving from .08 percent to .05 percent.
"Do we look at leaving it the way it is? Do we look at making changes? Reducing the penalties between .05 to .08?" asked Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, co-chairman of the Transportation Interim Committee.
Utah became the first state in the nation to lower the DUI standard to .05 percent.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who signed HB155 into law in March, has said he might call the Legislature into special session to consider amending the legislation before it takes effect Dec. 30, 2018.
Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, wondered about the need for the committee to revise a law that hasn't been enforced yet.
"We've already made the change," Spendlove said. "Why are questioning our decision?"
Schultz said the committee is charged with exploring any unintended consequences of the bill.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who sponsored HB155, said he's been meeting with the hospitality and restaurant industries, law enforcement and "anybody and everybody who has my phone number" to talk about those issues.
"If there are really things that we had no idea, didn't even think about, great. But we did intend to lower the BAC limit. We did intend to reduce the number of drunk driving trips a day," Thurston said.
Criminal defense attorneys told the committee that more people would be arrested, more would appeal the loss of their driver's licenses in court, and more would go trial with an argument that they're not impaired at .05 percent.
"Our statute is a good statute, and it's a tough statute," attorney Richard Mauro said of the current law.
Some Democratic lawmakers on the committee raised questions about the impact on Utah's tourism and hospitality industries. Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Millcreek, said the state's liquor laws are already "notoriously close to strange."
The American Beverage Institute based in Washington, D.C., is an outspoken opponent of the law, taking out local and national full-page newspaper ads jabbing Utah as inhospitable to responsible drinkers.
The Utah Restaurant Association and the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association opposed the legislation, as did the Utah Shooting Sports Council.
Carlene Walker, chairwoman of the state DUI committee, told lawmakers the group has no firm recommendations because it hasn't reached consensus.
"This is a problematic situation. We have differing points of view that are taking us in different directions," said Walker, a former state senator.
One issue lawmakers will likely consider is whether to make lesser penalties for a .05 percent offense as two other states have done.
Colorado and New York have two levels of alcohol-related driving violations based on blood alcohol content. In addition to the .08 percent DUI limit, drivers in those states could be cited for the lesser offense of "driving while ability impaired" at .05 percent to .07 percent. In Colorado, it's a misdemeanor. New York deems it a traffic infraction.
Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Steve Winward said the new law is already having an impact because some drivers think it has taken effect. They're choosing to ride share rather than drink and drive, he said.
Utah law enforcement made 10,755 DUI-related arrests in 2015, including 339 for drivers with a blood alcohol content of between .00 and .07 percent, according to the 2016 DUI report compiled by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
Alcohol-related fatal car crashes were down, while drug-related fatalities were up, the 2016 report showed.
Crashes involving drugs — marijuana, methamphetamine and hydrocodone being the most common — ballooned 119 percent, going from 320 in 2014 to 701 in 2015. Fatalities involving alcohol dropped 18 percent, from 45 to 37.