Police oficer arresting a young man at night
By IHPL - June 6, 2019

Every 48 minutes, one person dies from a drunk-driving crash in America.1 Given such statistics, it is no wonder the lawmakers in Utah tightened their grip against driving under the influence. As of December 30, 2018, Utah became the first state to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent for drivers over the age 21.2 Of note, in March 2019, Utah increased the allowable alcohol content in beer sold in retail stores from 3.2 percent to 4 percent by weight but still remains one of the few states with the lowest alcohol content for beer sold in retail outlets.3

Similar to how states choose their legal BAC level for drivers over the age of 21, the law also varies in each state for the allowable BAC level of underage drivers. For instance, it is illegal in Utah for anyone under the age of 21 to have any amount of alcohol in their system while driving.5 In contrast, Wyoming and New Jersey set their legal BAC to 0.02% for drivers under 21 which is equivalent to less than one drink for a woman under 200 pounds and a man under 160 pounds.6,7,8

The impacts of blood alcohol content on driving vary. For example, a 0.02 BAC causes a decline in visual functions and the ability to perform two tasks at once.2 A 0.05 BAC may cause slower response rates, reduced coordination, and difficulty tracking moving objects.1 A 0.08 BAC may lead to short-term memory loss, decreased concentration, and weakened perception.1 Besides Utah, every state currently has their legal BAC limit set to 0.08.

Given that blood alcohol content negatively affects driving, the main intention behind lowering the legal limit for BAC is to reduce the amount of car accidents due to drinking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 10,874 alcohol-related deaths in the United States in 2017.2 Research shows that a 0.05 limit would prevent 1800 deaths or 11 percent of fatal car accidents in the US due to alcohol.9

Which states should consider lowering their legal BAC limit for drinking and driving? Data from 2017 shows which states have the most and the least amount of drunk driving deaths.10

States with the most drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people:

  1. Wyoming: 7.59
  2. South Carolina: 6.22
  3. North Dakota: 6.08
  4. New Mexico: 5.74
  5. Alabama: 5.49

States with the least drunk driving deaths per 100,000 people:

  1. New Jersey: 1.38
  2. New York: 1.48
  3. Minnesota: 1.52
  4. Utah: 1.70
  5. Massachusetts: 1.74

With its new legal BAC limit, will Utah become the leading state for the lowest number of drunk driving deaths? According to the Utah Department of Public Safety, it will take three to five years to analyze the data and determine the effects of the new law.4

So what can we expect next as we await the effect of Utah’s new law? History may tell us the answer. In 1983, Utah was the first state to lower their BAC from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, with the other states following shortly after.11 Will the other states choose to follow in Utah’s lead again? In February 2019, California introduced AB 1713 which would also lower the legal BAC from 0.08 to 0.05.12Hawaii, Washington, and New York have also proposed bills to change their laws regarding driving under the influence.4 The National Transportation Safety Board wants all 51 states to reduce their BAC limit to 0.05, but each state’s governing body will ultimately make that decision.13

Author bio:

Kaitlin Brehaut, MPH

Kaitlin Brehaut, MPH, CHES

Kaitlin Brehaut serves as IHPL’s Health Policy Assistant, providing administrative, programmatic and research support to the Institute team. Ms. Brehaut completed her undergraduate education in Health Science with a concentration in Health Care Management at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). She then received her Master of Public Health degree at CSUSB. She is also certified as a Health Education Specialist.

For more information, contact Kaitlin at: kbrehaut@llu.edu


  1. https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-driving#nhtsa-action
  2. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/12/19/utah-lower-drunk-driving-limit-05-other-states/2358649002/
  3. https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900060253/lawmakers-reach-deal-to-raise-alcohol-content-of-beer-sold-in-utah-grocery-convenience-stores.html
  4. https://www.sltrib.com/news/2018/12/30/utah-now-has-strictest/
  5. https://dui.drivinglaws.org/utah.php
  6. https://dui.drivinglaws.org/wyoming.php
  7. https://dui.drivinglaws.org/jersey.php
  8. http://www.breathalyzeralcoholtester.com/alcohol-chart-estimation
  9. https://www.gainesville.com/news/20190104/utah-lowered-its-dui-limit-will-other-states-follow
  10. https://www.safewise.com/blog/states-by-highest-impaired-driving-rate/
  11. https://www.npr.org/2018/12/26/679833767/utah-first-in-the-nation-to-lower-its-dui-limit-to-05-percent
  12. https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2019/04/03/california-bac-bill-05-dui-interlock-bills/
  13. https://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/22253323/ntsb-wants-drunk-driving-limit-lowered-to-05/