More than any other nation, the United States can't quite make up its mind if alcohol is a blessing or a curse. While Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin liked to lift a glass, the republic in later years was to lurch in and out of the failed experiment called Prohibition -- and the impulse to severely limit if not ban booze never died.
The ghost of such attitudes hovers above the National Transportation Safety Board's efforts to curb alcohol-impaired deaths. Last week the board came out with 19 recommendations for the states. They include reasonable measures such as stricter enforcement using more sophisticated tools and ignition interlock devices for all DUI offenders. But the most controversial recommendation is reducing 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. Now the creep is invited to continue. The NTSB believes that impairment begins with the first drink, and zero alcohol-related accidents is now the stated goal.
In the spirit of inflated expectations, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman did not spare the hyperbole in explaining why her agency was making these 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 -- in fact, it might be hard to find an American who didn't believe that impaired driving was a problem. And this is precisely so because hardly a day goes by without a reminder of the epidemic.
As Ms. Hersman said, on average every hour one person is killed due to drunken 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.
These are sobering figures, but how many fatalities fall into the range between 0.05 to 0.07 BAC, which is now legal? Ms. Hersman said it was about 1,000 in 2011.
That's a depressing number in terms of individual 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 also be saved by banning the slightest hint of drink in every driver, but the American people are not going to accept that.
So it's a matter of making a reasonable balance between saving lives and America's sense of freedom. That balance is already in place at 0.08.