SALT LAKE CITY — More than 100 people rallied at the state Capitol on Friday to urge Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill dropping the state's legal blood-alcohol limit from .08 to .05, the lowest in the nation.
"If Gov. Herbert signs this bill, Utah will be the only state in America that arrests people at .05 blood-alcohol level," said Michele Corigliano, the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association executive director, calling it "the most extreme law of its kind."
In a statement, the governor's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said Herbert and his staff are "evaluating data from public safety agencies and will meet early next week with representatives from the Utah hospitality industry."
Edwards said the governor "is carefully evaluating how the proposed reduction in blood-alcohol content limit for driving under the influence would affect public safety and whether there may be unintended consequences."
Corigliano and other speakers gathered in the Capitol rotunda said the industry does not support drinking and driving, and urged patrons to have a designated driver or arrange for transportation if they imbibe.
HB155, which passed the House and Senate during the 2017 Legislature that ended March 9 and is awaiting action by the governor, isn't intended to stop drunken drivers, she said, but instead send a message.
"That message is Utah is not tolerant of people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. Utah is not friendly to skiers who want to have a cocktail after they hit the slopes. Utah is not welcoming to conventions whose attendees want to have a beer after their meetings," Corigliano said, nor respectful to businesses relocating in the state.
Ema Ostarcevic, founder and CEO of the Utah-based recruiting firm Search Group Partners, told the crowd she believes the bill "will significantly hurt our ability to attract talent and to grow jobs in our state."
Ostarcevic said the No. 1 objection recruiters from her firm hear from people approached to work in Utah "is that our culture, specifically our liquor laws, are too repressive and unwelcoming."
She said an applicant from California recently declined a six-figure job in Utah, citing "our crazy laws. The last thing we need is yet another stigma that will deter talent from the Beehive State."
Before the rally, the sponsor of HB155, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said in an interview the purpose of the bill is to tell people that if they drink, they should not drive.
That's a reversal of the suggestions that "it's OK to drink and drive, just don't drive drunk," Thurston said, warning that even a single drink can cause impairment in a driver.
"The impact of lowering blood-alcohol limits is that it creates a general deterrent effect. So that means when people go out to drink, they are less likely to get in their cars and drive," he said.
That means "we will have fewer people drinking and driving on our roads. Therefore, we will have fewer crashes, we'll have fewer injuries and fewer deaths," Thurston said, predicting the lower limit could save between 10 and 20 lives each year in Utah.
"It's hard to know exactly how that would play out, but it's significant and it's worth doing," he said.
On Thursday, the American Beverage Institute bought full-page ads in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune. The Deseret News ad was a "tongue-in-cheek" thank-you note for the lower limit, claiming to be from Colorado, a tourism rival.
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that all states adopt a .05 limit since 2013. Bella Dinh-Zarr, the board's acting chairwoman, lobbied Utah lawmakers for the change.
Dinh-Zarr said the ads were "ridiculous" and "fear-mongering," and warned that more Utahns will die in drunken driving accidents if the limit isn't lowered.
"These are complete scare tactics that are hurting safety," she said.
Thurston noted .05 is the legal blood-alcohol limit in many countries around the world, and Colorado can cite drivers for impairment at that level. He said he was not aware whether other states did the same.
Tourism should not be affected by the lower limit, Thurston said, because it wasn't when Utah was one of the first states to go to from a 1.0 limit to .08 in 1983, along with Oregon.
"It's not surprising that the primary source of the opposition has been the alcohol industry," he said, because of the potential impact on sales — something that shouldn't be a concern.
"I don't care if they drink. In fact, I don't care if they drink more because of this law," Thurston said. "What I'm worried about is the people who would have made the decision to drink and drive."