Utah’s DUI law could be buzzkill for Park City tourism
Business leaders call new 0.05 blood-alcohol content limit into question
Nearly four months after the passage of Utah’s controversial new DUI law, business and tourism leaders in Park City are still having a hard time swallowing it.
The law, scheduled to go into effect in December 2018, would make it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol content of over 0.05, the lowest threshold in the country. Tourism leaders throughout the state have vocally criticized the law — including at a recent Utah State Legislature committee hearing — and it’s drawn attacks from interest groups like the American Beverage Institute, which has run ads mocking Utah as a place to come for a vacation and leave on probation.
Park City tourism officials and restaurant owners, too, have questioned the wisdom of the law. While some believe it will have only a small effect on tourism and Park City’s reputation for hospitality, others worry the law — and the widespread national media attention it has drawn — will drive would-be visitors away.
Steven Maxwell is one restaurateur who is concerned. He is the owner of Maxwell’s East Coast Eatery and Myrtle Rose in Kimball Junction and said that, while he’s in favor of strict measures to keep drunk drivers off the road, he doesn’t believe lowering the DUI threshold is the way to do it. He’s seen little evidence that drivers with blood-alcohol contents between 0.05 and 0.08 are dangerous, but has read plenty negative press coverage of the law, leading him to believe it could actually hurt Utahns.
“I don’t know if (lawmakers) care about what drives the economy in the state, which is tourism,” he said. “I mean, we’re not producing oil. We have people coming to explore our mountains and see the beautiful things we have in the state. Why would you do things to be detrimental to that? Colorado is just loving this.”
In Maxwell’s view, a better approach would be for the state to funnel their efforts into programs that provide rides home for people who have been drinking. However, Hans Fuegi, owner of the Grub Steak Restaurant and chair of the Utah Restaurant Association’s liquor task force, said it’s unlikely the Legislature will reverse course on the law before it takes effect late next year.
A more realistic scenario, he said, would be for lawmakers to amend the law so that drivers caught with a blood-alcohol content between 0.05 and 0.08 would be given lighter punishments than those handed down to drunk drivers above 0.08. Colorado and New York, for instance, currently have similar provisions within their DUI laws.
Fuegi, who shares Maxwell’s concerns about the damage the new law could do to tourism, said that compromise could go a long way to solving the problem. The state could crack down on social drinkers who get behind the wheel without fueling the widespread stereotype that Utah’s liquor laws fall outside the norm.
“That would take some of the sting out of it,” he said. “It’s well known that Utah, for obvious reasons, has the lowest DUI rate in the whole nation. It just doesn’t make sense for that state to be the first one to take this hard of an approach.”
Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, said it’s obvious the law is here to stay, but he, too, is hopeful lawmakers choose to differentiate between tiers of drunk driving.
Even if the law is ultimately unchanged, it would be far from a “death blow” to the town’s tourism industry, he said. But if it is tweaked before kicking in, it likely won’t have much of a negative effect at all. Malone said it’s hard to imagine it being the deciding factor for anyone weighing a vacation to Park City versus another resort destination.
“If we get this to be treated a little differently, I don’t think it will be a big deal,” he said.
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Another ski season is in the books, and much to the relief of the restaurant industry, the outlook, like the weather, is looking sunny.