SALT LAKE CITY — Legislation to lower Utah’s legal blood alcohol content limit from .08 to .05 percent raises the question of exactly how many “adult beverages” someone can consume before crossing the legal line.
House Bill 155, sponsored by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, advanced in a 4-2 vote out of a state Senate committee Wednesday, but not without the bill’s sponsor citing drink guidelines which some have questioned in recent days.
The measure cleared the state House of Representatives in a 48-26 tally last week. If approved by the full Senate, Utah would be the first state in the nation to to adopt a .05 BAC. Two other states — Washington and Hawaii — are considering similar legislation.
On Feb. 23, Thurston told colleagues on the House floor that a 160-pound person could consume 56 ounces of low-alcohol Utah beer; or two-thirds a bottle of wine; or three Utah-sized shots of distilled spirits within an hour before passing the proposed .05 BAC threshold. He repeated that data while speaking to the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Committee Wednesday, noting: “So .05 is actually quite a bit of drinking.”
Some Standard-Examiner readers thought so too, and questioned the quantities as being too high. Reached Wednesday afternoon, Thurston said his source for the data was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a CDC factsheet on impaired driving and blood alcohol content, a 160-pound man could reach a .05 level by consuming three drinks within one hour. One drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of 5-percent alcoholic beer, one five-ounce glass of wine or one 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirit such as rum, scotch, whiskey, vodka or tequila. Thurston based his 56 ounces of beer figure on Utah’s 3.2-percent alcoholic beer.
While the “160-pound man” is a widely used standard, many people’s bodies absorb alcohol differently. Combine those physiological factors with Utah’s unique serving sizes for beer and shots means recalculating a new personal limit is fuzzier than CDC charts dictate.
Dr. Brent Horn, forensics director and an associate professor in Criminal Justice at Weber State University, spoke to the science behind a body’s ability to absorb alcohol.
Gender, weight, diet and ingredients in the drink are just a few factors playing into how quickly a person could pass the legal limit.
“There are a couple of fundamentals, the first one is that any amount of alcohol begins to impair the brain,” Horn said. “And so it’s really a question of how much alcohol a person has in their system, a lot of different factors affecting how fast it gets into their blood stream and other physiological factors that determine exactly how much alcohol is in their brain cells — and then that’s what causes impairment.”
Women, for example, generally have a lower water distribution than men, Horn said, so it takes less alcohol to get the equivalent concentration in their brain as a man. A heavier person typically has a higher water distribution in the body, so it takes more alcohol to reach an illegal concentrated level in the blood.
“Alcohol is primarily absorbed in your small intestine, so if you can hold it back in your stomach, that will slow how fast it goes into your bloodstream — and the effects are distributed over a longer period of time,” Horn said. “So this is where they talk about eating lots of fatty foods while you’re drinking, causing the alcohol to stay in your stomach longer.”
The form the alcohol comes in also contributes to speed and extent of impairment. Ice, for example, can dilute a drink while carbonated alcoholic beverages are more quickly absorbed than non-carbonated cocktails.
Horn said he is not a drinker but, based on science and evidence of alcohol causing impaired judgement, he questioned whether someone could decide accurately if they’ve had too much to drive.
“One of the things that alcohol does in its early and lowest concentration stages is start to affect the way your brain perceives itself,” Horn said. “One of the very first things that comes on is a lower level of inhibition, so it would seem that someone who has had a couple of drinks and is starting to feel the affects may not realize psychologically that ‘I have a real problem here and shouldn’t be driving.’”
At .05 BAC, the CDC says an individual will likely experience, among other things, some loss of small-muscle control such as eye-focusing along with impaired judgement.
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According to Responsibility.org, every state in the U.S. enacted the .08 BAC standard by 2004, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined that virtually all drivers are impaired at that level whether they appear to be or not.
Thurston told the L.A. Times he worked with the Utah Highway Patrol while drafting the legislation due to an increase in fatalities related to drunk driving. Utah Fatal Crash Summaries going back to 2013, the earliest year online reports are available, show drunk-driving related deaths nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014 but since then, deaths dropped back to 2013 levels. Twenty drunk driving-related deaths in 2012 marked a 20-year low.
That same data also shows more common causes of deadly crashes to be drivers over the age of 65, speed, urban and rural settings. Crashes involving drunk drivers ranked ninth among deadly causes in 2016.
Data available for 2014-16 respectively shows 13.5 percent, 7 percent and 9.1 percent of drivers in fatal crashes were above the .08 BAC limit. Information for drivers who tested positive for alcohol but who were driving below the .08 BAC limit was not immediately publicly available.