At the end of 2018, a new law passed in Utah will go into effect. The maximum blood-alcohol limit will be lowered from 0.08% to 0.05%. This has fueled much apprehension on the part of consumers of alcohol and those establishments who serve it. The liquor lobbying group, The American Beverage Institute, launched an ad campaign suggesting that a trip to Utah could very well lead to a DUI arrest. While there are certainly questions to be asked about what this new law could mean for our state, the most important thing you’ll want to know is where your limits are.
I’d like to start off by saying that any drinking and driving is something all of us should avoid. Alcohol can make you feel relaxed and happy while obscuring the realities of your ability to operate a vehicle. We all know that being tired or distracted while driving can be dangerous; so can being tipsy. That being said, if you want to have a drink at dinner or enjoy a beer at the bar before driving home, you are free to do so. The law says you can have alcohol in your system and drive as long as you don’t exceed the legal limit – a magical number the law says makes you too drunk to drive. The trick is knowing where the line is and how not to cross it.
Edit: The above statement isn’t entirely true. The law says you can drive as long as you are not impaired. The magical number that is your BAC is not the determining factor. Observable impairment is. You can be arrested for a DUI even when you are under the legal limit.
So, how do you know when you’re too drunk to drive? You probably think you have a pretty good idea of where “drunk” is, but you might be surprised. If you have a rather high tolerance to alcohol, you may not feel the effects even when your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) is past the legal limit. You think you’re good to drive, but if you were pulled over or were involved in an accident, you’d still get a DUI (driving under the influence). This isn’t something you can afford to leave to chance.
Buy a Breathalyzer
The only way to be sure that you’re within the law is to either refrain from drinking when you drive or check your BAC. There are a number of breathalyzers on the market that range in price from very affordable to a couple hundred bucks. You can get one for your keychain or even pair it with your smartphone to track your data. I did some research and decided to spend a little over $100 on one I felt would be the most accurate and dependable. The BACtrack S80 is easy to use, takes two AA batteries, and comes with a protective carrying case. You will need to send it in for recalibration after 200 tests or after 6 months to a year of use. You must also wait 20 minutes after drinking, eating, or smoking before using it to get an accurate reading and to avoid damage to the sensor. This is pretty standard with all breathalyzers.
Edit: Finding that your BAC is below the legal limit does not guarantee you won’t get a DUI.
Track Your Drinking Habits
No breathalyzer can give you an exact measurement of your BAC, so consider it more of a learning tool. The number of drinks it takes to get to 0.05% is different for everyone. Weight, gender, age, metabolism, rate of drinking, whether you ate, the ABV (percentage of alcohol) of your drink, altitude; these are all factors that will determine how quickly you reach that number. When you drink, keep some notes on what you consumed, how much, and how long it took you. Check your BAC and record it. Over time, you should have a decent idea of what you can reasonably expect to drink and stay legal. If you do plan to drive home after drinking, take the breathalyzer along to keep you honest.
What I Learned
As a regular drinker, I found the purchase of a breathalyzer to be well worth the money. It has encouraged me to really think about how I’m feeling and whether I can drive. At 0.08%, the current limit, I don’t think I should be driving. I’m not falling over or slurring my words, but I know I’m impaired. Even below 0.05%, I feel like driving takes extra effort and concentration. It may not be very different from driving home exhausted after a long day at work, but it’s certainly not ideal.
The suggestion that, under the new law in Utah, a person can’t have even one drink before driving seems to be an exaggeration. Even if you only weigh a hundred pounds, you’ll likely be able to swing at least one alcoholic beverage of moderate strength – unless you drink fast – without getting near 0.05%. Utah makes it easy by providing plenty of 4% ABV beer options and limiting the amount of liquor allowed in a cocktail. When it comes to beer, the ABV is key. At 7% ABV, I was pretty close to 0.05% after consuming two 12 oz. beers in an hour. At 9% ABV, I was over that limit after drinking one 12 oz. beer in about 30 minutes. Food definitely makes a difference. I noticed my BAC actually going down when I ate a meal even when I was drinking a 4% ABV beer with it.*
A good rule of thumb for most people would be to limit your drinking to one alcoholic beverage before driving. You may be able to have two if you’re drinking something of a low ABV and are eating as well. Don’t risk driving if you’re close to the 0.05% limit. Remember, the breathalyzer is just an estimate. If you’re going out to have a good time, take public transportation or have a sober person drive you. Paying for a taxi or ride-share service is worth not having to worry about getting a DUI or hurting someone on the roads. If you don’t want to buy a breathalyzer, check an online chart to get a weight-based idea of what you may be able to drink. Ultimately, you’ll be glad you know your limits.
*Note – The BAC calculations mentioned in this article were reached during my research and are based on my own tolerance and various circumstances of the moment. They are not scientific and should not be applied to yourself. Individual results will vary.