Tourism, restaurant groups worry about impact of Utah’s new .05 DUI law

SALT LAKE CITY -- Tourism and restaurant industry groups expressed worry that Utah's controversial .05 DUI law might scare people away.

Speaking to the Utah State Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee, they acknowledged no hard data from the law's passage, but did worry they were beginning to see a negative impact.

Kaitlin Eskelson of the Utah Tourism Industry Association said room tax revenues were down slightly year-over-year. She also said new surveys showed Utah had received a lot of bad press nationwide over the strictest anti-drunk driving law in the nation -- about $2 million worth.

"We do want to be really cognizant about the perception and how we’re sort of welcoming the world into our state," she said.

A Utah Highway Patrol trooper makes a suspected DUI arrest in a 2015 bust. (FOX 13 file image)

She was joined by Visit Salt Lake, the Utah Restaurant Association, the Utah Hospitality Association and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah who each expressed some level of concern about the new law.

But the most tense exchange came between lawmakers and Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, which has run ads targeting Utah in neighboring states. The ads have urged people to cancel vacation plans to Utah.

"People are not drunk at .05," she said. "They are sober at .05."

Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute testifies before the Transportation Interim Committee against the new .05 DUI law. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Some lawmakers jumped in to defend the law. Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, spoke of highway fatalities and believed it has already saved lives.

"I think there has been a chilling effect. I think people are reticent to get behind the wheel. I think they’re still drinking at restaurants and bars. I think as Utah we can lead the way on this," he said.

Replied Longwell: "You certainly wouldn’t suggest I don’t want to save lives. Everybody in this room wants to save lives."

She said if lawmakers were focused solely on lives, they would lower the speed limit or ban cell phones in cars entirely.

An ad running in the Idaho Statesman newspaper protesting Utah's new DUI law.

After Governor Gary Herbert signed the bill into law, he ordered a review of the law to address "unintended consequences." The bill's sponsor, Rep. Norm Thurston, told FOX 13 he is open to making some changes but did not expect the law to be repealed entirely.

Some of those changes could address concerns about insurance, driver licenses issues and even create a tiered system for people convicted of a .05 to .08 DUI and above.

Supporters of the law defend it, saying it sends a strong message of "don't drink and drive." That was echoed by Art Brown, the president of Utah's chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"MADD does have a national policy against not supporting going to .05," he testified. "For our part here in Utah, we chose not to oppose House Bill 155."

Cara Tangaro, the president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the bill would bring them more business.

"I think it is a bad law," she said.

Any changes to the law would be addressed when the Utah State Legislature convenes in January. The DUI law takes effect at the end of 2018.