The sharply lower threshold for drunken driving recommended this week by a federal safety board has renewed the national discussion about reducing traffic fatalities involving alcohol. Such a discussion is worthy. Congress established the current standard about a decade ago, but progress has stalled, with drunken drivers steadily claiming about 10,000 lives a year.
What the National Transportation Safety Board has in mind is lowering the allowable blood-alcohol level from the current standard, 0.08 percent, down to 0.05 percent, a reduction of more than one-third. To be sure, social drinkers would be affected. At the lower level, it has been estimated that a 180-pound man could legally consume three drinks in 90 minutes; a 130-pound woman, two.
Still, at that level, driving is impaired, according to studies cited by the board. Government statistics show people with a 0.05 percent blood-alcohol content are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than those who have not been drinking.
Opposition quickly surfaced from the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national group representing highway safety officers, and from the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association. They argue the focus should be on heavy drinkers and repeat offenders.
They have a point. In that way, the transportation safety board has recommended ignition interlock devices for those convicted of drunken driving, which would not allow a vehicle to be started without the driver passing an alcohol test.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that more than 7,000 deaths would have been prevented in 2010 with a blood-alcohol standard below 0.08 percent, a significant reduction in the 10,000 annual alcohol-related fatalities. European countries have reduced traffic deaths attributed to drunken driving by more than half by using the 0.05 percent standard.
By comparison, there are about 10,000 gun homicides a year in the United States, a figure that has triggered impassioned calls for stricter gun controls. The National Transportation Safety Board rightly questions our tolerance for the same level of fatalities due to drunken driving.