Christopher Robert Youngblood was showing off his nitrous oxide-boosted sports car to his sister and his brother-in-law, hitting 90 mph in a 45 mph zone when the vehicle veered off the road, went airborne, and hit a wall, then a fence before smashing into a Kearns home.
Both passengers died in the December 2011 crash. Youngblood lived and ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of automobile homicide.
Because tests showed Youngblood had a blood alcohol level of 0.07 — as well as marijuana in his system — the crash was tallied among the statistics that legislative proponents used to argue for a new law making Utah the first in the country to have a strict 0.05 limit for driving under the influence.
The statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story and actually may be obscuring it.
A more detailed analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune found that just 34 of the more than 4,300 people killed on Utah roads between 2001 and 2016 involved drivers with a blood alcohol level between 0.05 and 0.08.
In many of those instances, like the devastating, high-speed Kearns crash, alcohol is certainly not the primary cause, if it contributed to the crash at all.
Take the April 2016 case where an Orem man was off-roading on a rugged, steep section of Chimney Rock Pass in Utah County when his SUV lost traction, slipped sideways and rolled 200 feet down the hill.
The driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, died. His blood alcohol level was 0.05. So, had his blood alcohol level been 0.04, would his truck still have rolled?
A review of the details of the 34 fatalities in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s federal database show other factors are often at play.
To make sure I was looking at this right, I asked Chris Bertram, a retired deputy chief from the Unified Police Department who now teaches criminal justice at Salt Lake Community College, to review the cases.
In two-thirds of the 34 fatalities, he said, “there were definitely primary contributing factors [involved] and I don’t think alcohol played a significant factor.”
“If we’re doing this because we think we’re going to reduce fatal accidents that are alcohol related, I don’t see the connection there yet,” he said. “And if that’s what our lawmakers are going to use, they should know the facts and we should present them in a way we know that is actually true.”
In nine crashes, for example, the drivers also tested positive for methamphetamine, marijuana or some other drug, like the January 2012 case where a 43-year-old woman with meth in her system ran off the roadway, hit a parked car and then a tree and died.
In seven instances, the driver who had been drinking was underage — a violation of Utah’s “not-a-drop” law prohibiting underage drinking and driving at any level. That includes a 2003 case where a 16-year-old without a license was running from police, skidded on a curve, rolled his Jeep and died.
There were nine cases where the driver was going at least 20 mph over the speed limit, like the 35-year-old man involved in a road-rage dispute in October 2009. He was going 73 mph in a 40 mph zone, hit another car and died.
The correlation between alcohol and fatal crashes simply doesn’t hold up. In fact, the data show there were actually 25 percent more fatal accidents involving drivers with a blood-alcohol level of 0.01 and 0.04 as those with drivers between 0.05 and 0.08.
Here’s another one: In South Salt Lake in 2011, a car was stopped at a stoplight. The driver, who was over 0.05, got rear-ended by a 23-year-old mother who was distracted by her child. But a case like that ends up in the statistics.
I don’t disagree with the researchers at the University of Utah who have proven empirically that impairment happens below 0.08. I’m not going to dispute that.
But the accidents caused by those drivers are a drop in the bucket, accounting, on average, for a little more than two of the 284 fatalities on our roads every year.
Don’t get me wrong, every life matters, and we should be trying to stop every fatal crash. But are we?
The biggest cause of fatalities on Utah roadways is excessive speed. Speeding has claimed 1,406 lives in the past 12 years. You are 54 times more likely to die in a speed-related accident than an accident involving a driver with blood alcohol between 0.05 and 0.08. But we don’t require jail time and suspend the licenses of people who speed. Just the opposite, Utah has consistently been raising the speed limits on highways.
There have been 21 fatal crashes between 2013 and 2016 (more than five a year) caused by “equipment failure” — blowouts, brakes, stalls — but the Legislature has gotten rid of regular safety inspections.
Distracted driving is real, yet last week a House committee killed a bill that would have made it against the law to use a phone while driving. And there were five fatal crashes between 2014 and 2016 where the driver was eating. So where’s the bill to outlaw eating and driving?
Rep. Norm Thurston, the sponsor of the 0.05 law, says the bill is already having a deterrent effect, with fewer people drinking and driving, and he doesn’t want to see any changes this year.
“The effect of the bill is not just the people between 0.05 and 0.08, it’s telling everyone: If you’re going to be drinking tonight, a lot or a little, find another way home,” he said.
There is a way to fix this law without losing the deterrent effect Thurston hopes to see and without destroying the 900-plus Utahns whom legislative forecasters expect to be arrested once the new level takes effect in December. Here’s how to do that:
• It turns out Utah is not the first to target 0.05 drivers. We should look to New York, which has had a 0.05 standard on the books, but it is charged as driving while impaired. Utah also has an impaired driving law, but without a BAC threshold.
The penalties for impaired driving in both states are significant — a hefty fine, a suspended license and alcohol screening — and escalate if a driver gets busted again. But it’s not as severe as a full DUI with mandatory jail time, interlock devices and a four-month driver license suspension.
The tiered penalties make sense and Gov. Gary Herbert has said he’s open to the idea. This way, Utah can still be tough on impaired driving, send a signal to drivers that it’s not tolerated, but be sensible in the punishment.
• If the Legislature can’t hammer out a workable tiered system, it should pass the bill by Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, that would delay implementation of the 0.05 law from Dec. 30 this year to 2022.
• Along with that, Utah should step up its DUI penalties for the real problem drivers, those arrested with high blood alcohol levels. Since 2007, drivers with a blood alcohol of 0.12 or higher account for nearly 80 percent of all fatal crashes (compared with less than 1 percent for those between 0.05 and 0.08). That’s obviously where we need to put the focus.
Currently, Utah only has stiffer penalties for drivers whose BAC is over 0.16. The Legislature should lower that level to 0.12 and increase the fines and jail time that go along with it. If the goal is to save lives, then target the people who are taking lives.
This isn’t about being soft on drunk driving. It’s about being smart about making our roads safer and, aside from the symbolism, the 0.05 law doesn’t make a meaningful impact in reaching that goal.