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Utah had the lowest rate of drunken driving fatalities in the nation last year, according the federal government's first accounting of alcohol-related driving accidents over the past two decades.
The state's DUI fatality rate has fallen 74 percent since 1982, the report said.
Though Utah's rate of drunken driving deaths has traditionally been low -- Mormonism is the state's predominant faith and discourages alcohol consumption -- the report marks a big improvement for the state.
"I think part of it is probably cultural. We don't drink as much as much as other states," said state Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Salt Lake City.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims 70 percent of the state's residents as members, and the state closely controls the sale of liquor and "hard" beer. Only beer with 3.2 percent alcohol content can be bought at places other than state-owned liquor stores.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has calculated the number of alcohol-related fatalities and the number of people killed per million vehicle miles traveled for each state from 1982-2001.
The study found that South Carolina has the nation's highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths, followed by Montana and Louisiana.
Of the 292 traffic deaths in Utah last year, 68 -- or 23 percent -- were alcohol-related, the study found. Nationally about 41 percent of all traffic deaths were believed to be alcohol-related.
The report shows that most of the state's DUI-deaths in 2001 occurred in Box Elder, Salt Lake and Utah counties. Each had between five and 15 deaths each, while the remaning counties reported fewer than five.
Jaynie Brown, whose infant grandson was killed by a drunk driver, said Utah's high population of teetotalers means that the state's drunken driving rate should be even lower.
"If we were any other state in the nation, I'd say, yes, cheer.
But it really should be better than that," said Brown, who's also the legislative lobbyist for the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I don't think Utah has anything to pat themselves on the back for."
Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said public support for tough laws has helped.
"We're less tolerant as a state," he said.
State lawmakers have aggressively closed holes in the state's drunken driving laws. The state has passed numerous laws cracking down on repeat offenders, including establishment of a database to more closely track DUI cases. The upcoming legislative session is expected to feature a new round of bills that would attempt to toughen DUI laws.
State Sen. Walker said her goal is to make Utah's laws the toughest in the nation. She says the push is not the reaction of a "moralistic, teetotaling Legislature."
"Drinking is legal in Utah," she said, "but drunk driving is a crime."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)