Drinking, driving, freedom


More than any other nation, the United States can’t quite make up its mind whether alcohol is a blessing or a curse. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin liked to lift a glass.

But in later years, the Republic lurched in and out of the failed experiment called Prohibition. The impulse to limit booze severely, if not ban it, never died.

The ghost of such attitudes hovers over the National Transportation Safety Board’s efforts to curb alcohol-impaired deaths. Last week, the board came out with 19 recommendations for states to adopt. They include reasonable measures such as stricter enforcement using more-sophisticated tools, and ignition interlock devices for DUI offenders.

But the most controversial proposal is to reduce the blood-alcohol concentration standard for impairment from 0.08 to 0.05. Thirty years ago, the standard was 0.10, but states were first encouraged and then cajoled with the threat of lost highway funds to come down to 0.08.

As the NTSB believes that impairment begins with the first drink, it is logical to think that before long its recommended standard would be a zero presence of alcohol. Indeed, zero alcohol-related accidents is now the stated goal.

In the spirit of inflated expectations, NTSB Chairman Deborah Herman did not spare the hyperbole in explaining the agency’s recommendations: “Most Americans think we’ve solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact it’s still a national epidemic.”

The first part of this statement is nonsense; it might be hard to find an American who doesn’t believe that impaired driving is a problem. Hardly a day goes by without a reminder of the epidemic.

Every hour, on average, one person is killed because of drunk driving, and 20 more are injured in accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Each year, nearly 10,000 people are killed in crashes involving alcohol impairment, and more than 173,000 are injured.

Sobering figures, but how many deaths fall into the range between 0.05 and .07 blood-alcohol content, which is now legal? Ms. Herman said it was about 1,000 in 2011. That’s a depressing number in terms of human tragedy, but it represents about one-tenth of the problem.

Yet the solution would fall heaviest on those who are not the main problem. A 0.05 standard would deal a harsh blow to American social life and the bars and restaurants that serve it. Someone of slight stature could be over the legal limit after just one glass of wine.

Experience teaches that some lives would be saved, but at what cost to freedom? Thousands of lives could be saved by banning the slightest hint of drink in every driver, but Americans are not going to accept that.

So it’s a matter of making a reasonable balance between saving lives and maintaining America’s sense of freedom. That balance is already in place at 0.08.