SALT LAKE CITY — Though critics argue Utah's toughest-in-the-nation DUI law restricts personal freedom and criminalizes social drinking, a new study concludes that it is not only ethically defensible but desirable.
Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania say their analysis shows setting the legal limit for driving at .05 percent blood alcohol concentration is likely to prevent substantial harm with minimal restrictions.
"Policymakers in other states should follow Utah’s lead to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths, and Congress should incentivize these changes," wrote Stephanie Morain, assistant professor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
Utah became the first state in the country to adopt the .05 percent standard, lowering it from .08 percent. The stricter law took effect Dec. 30.
The study came in response to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report last year proposing that lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration level would reduce alcohol-impaired driving deaths.
Morain and co-author Emily Largent, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, say they recognize their paper takes a controversial approach to the issue.
"We make the distinction in our arguments that this law would not penalize or prohibit social drinking, but rather penalize alcohol-impaired driving. A person can still drink as much as they like, just not get behind the wheel," according to Morain, adding it's increasingly easier to find safe rides home.
In the public health ethics field, it is acceptable to restrict individual freedom in order to prevent harm to others, and the BAC .05 laws are a shining example of this philosophy.
–Stephanie Morain, Baylor College of Medicine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a 160-pound man would need to consume three alcoholic drinks in an hour to reach a .05 blood alcohol concentration.
The American Beverage Institute, which mounted an ad campaign to derail the Utah law, says the paper's assertion that .05 laws would reduce traffic deaths is questionable at best.
"The problem with .05 laws isn’t that they’re morally unjustifiable. The real issue is that lowering the legal limit is an ineffective policy that will only siphon limited traffic safety resources away from the real problem of high-BAC and repeat drunk drivers," said Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the organization based in Washington, D.C.
Studies citing a significant drop in traffic deaths are "deeply flawed" because they rely on a broad deterrence effect, meaning that drivers at all blood alcohol concentration levels, especially high ones, would be persuaded to not get behind the wheel after consuming too much alcohol after a .05 law is implemented, he said.
"This is an argument that defies logic," Shedelbower said.
Even though the law could effectively reduce alcohol-related injury and death, many critics claim such a law restricts individual freedom and criminalizes responsible social drinking, according to the authors of the study.
Morain and Largent say they made an ethical argument supporting .05 laws, which include preventing harm to both drinking drivers and to others. They then considered and rejected liberty-based objections, concluding the law is "not only ethically defensible but desirable."
"In the public health ethics field, it is acceptable to restrict individual freedom in order to prevent harm to others, and the BAC .05 laws are a shining example of this philosophy," according to Morain.
"With Utah passing legislation to reduce the legal BAC level, we hope this signals a window of opportunity for similar legislation to be adopted across the country."
California, Oregon and New York are among states considering lowering the limit from .08 to .05. Utah and Oregon were the first states to go to .08 percent in 1983.
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