Those in the restaurant industry are calling on Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill sponsored by Provo Republican Rep. Norm Thurston, which would make Utah the first state to lower the legal blood alcohol content of drivers from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
House Bill 155, having passed both the Utah Senate and House of Representatives the last week of the legislative session, now just awaits Herbert’s decision to sign it into law, or veto it.
Several of the organizations calling for Herbert to veto the bill say it could hurt both Utah’s overall tourism industry and individual businesses.
Chad Pritchard, owner of Provo’s Oregano Italian Kitchen, is among those who want Herbert to veto the legislation, saying that if it passes, it will have unintended consequences on Utah tourism and the restaurant industry.
Though Pritchard emphasized that he is never OK with people drinking and driving, he said the bill will simply increase restaurants’ liability, while not increasing safety on the roads as it has been intended to do.
Pritchard especially expressed concern about “Dram Shop” laws, which hold restaurants responsible if they serve alcohol to someone who is “actually or apparently intoxicated.”
“If someone drinks at my establishment, and goes and gets in an accident, we can be held liable for that,” Pritchard said. “This bill increases our liability and the liability of the establishment for dram shop.”
But, Thurston argues that no one should go to a restaurant planning to drink and drive, and that the bill is not intended to keep people from drinking — just from drinking and driving.
“My point of view is it’s never OK to drink and drive,” Thurston said. “A lot of people from the restaurant industry say you can drink up to this point and then drive. That’s not the message we want to send as a state.”
Pritchard said many Utah senators voted without having taken the possible consequences to restaurants into consideration.
“They hadn’t considered the dram shop laws, re-training employees or business loss,” Pritchard said.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said she had not heard from individual restaurant owners or the Utah Restaurant Association before casting her vote in favor of the bill in the Senate.
“I never heard an opposing argument (before voting),” Henderson said. “And the facts presented (in favor) were compelling.”
But, because the bill wouldn’t go into effect until December 2018, Henderson said even if the governor signs the bill, there’s still plenty of time to go back and take a harder look at the issue.
“If we have somehow missed the mark, we have the opportunity to revisit it before it even goes into effect,” Henderson said. “That’s the beauty of our system. We can always revisit things and take a second look.”
The Daily Herald also reached out to Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who did not return requests for comment Friday.
There is no hard evidence or statistics to show that this will negatively impact the restaurant industry, Thurston said, and that it won’t criminalize the average person who has one drink at dinner.
Thurston’s website links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which says a 160 pound man would need about three alcoholic drinks in one hour to reach a 0.05 BAC, at which point the website lists reduced coordination and difficulty steering as predictable effects of driving at that BAC level.
In addition, Thurston points back to 1983, when Utah was also one of the first states to lower BAC from 0.1 to 0.08. After that, the rest of the states followed suit.
“Nobody has provided evidence that in any of those cases, restaurant patronage declined,” Thurston said.
“It’s a little bit frustrating that the alcohol industry is spending so much time and money fighting an effort to keep their very patrons from getting in crashes and dying,” Thurston said.
A rally was held at the Utah Capitol on Friday, at which several organizations rallied to convince Herbert to veto the bill.
Michelle Corigliano, the executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said the point of the bill isn’t to stop drunk drivers — it’s to send a message.
“And that message is, Utah is not tolerant of people who enjoy a glass of wine at dinner,” Corigliano said. “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, and Utah is not respectful of the businesses relocating here from out of state.”
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who openly opposed the bill during its Senate committee appearance, told those at the rally to let other states lead the way in passing legislation to lower BAC.
“What I’m saying, governor, is let two or three other states go ahead of Utah, let’s test it, let’s see if there are changes in crashes and fatalities,” Dabakis said. “And if that is true, if there is evidence, if there is any scientific evidence to support that, then I’ll be the first to sponsor the damn thing.”
Herbert has not yet committed to signing or vetoing the controversial bill.
“Gov. Herbert 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,” said Paul Edwards, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff in a prepared statement Friday.
“He and his staff are evaluating data from public safety agencies and will meet early next week with representatives from the Utah hospitality industry.”