Vehicle crashes are the top killer of teens and young adults. Raising the driving age to 21 and launching new drivers by simply handing them the keys without prior instruction would be a grossly ineffective solution to the problem, yet that is the approach society uses in introducing young adults to alcohol consumption.
A group of college presidents representing 100 institutions, including the likes of Duke, Dartmouth, Tufts, Colgate and Syracuse, are asking state lawmakers around the U.S. to consider lowering the drinking age to 18, where it had been in most states in the 1970s. Federal law, which denies some highway funds to states with drinking ages lower than 21, leveraged the change.
The arguments for at least considering changing the laws about alcohol use for those younger than 21 are compelling.
For one thing, the college presidents say, the laws serve as a kind of blindfold for adults, persuading them that teens are not drinking when in fact they are. Survey after survey show teens, especially those living away from home for the first time at college, are finding alcohol and drinking to the point of drunkenness. The Associated Press reported that from 1999 to 2005, 157 young adults, aged 18-23, died from consuming too much alcohol. Another study estimated that 500,000 injuries and 1,700 deaths from injuries on college campuses are the result of alcohol use.
The statement signed by the college presidents said current law creates a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking.” Students use fake IDs which “erode respect for the law.” The presidents also note that 18-year-olds can vote and fight in war, a distinction not lost on teens.
A more persuasive argument for lowering the drinking age is that parents, while they are still actively involved in their children’s lives, can introduce them to responsible alcohol use. Just as the parent sits beside the 16-year-old student driver, if the drinking age were 18 or 19, parents could legally serve beer at a party, while also using the experience to teach the importance of having designated drivers or sleeping over rather than driving home.
In the 1970s, many college campuses had bars in dormitories or in student union buildings, which kept students from drinking and driving. That sort of practical compromise was effective.
Alcohol has the power to destroy lives and families. Those who abuse alcohol — even if they do so in private places — profoundly impact others. Drunk drivers kill innocent victims.
But a blanket intolerance for alcohol has become the politically correct stance beyond what experience shows is warranted. The rise in consciousness about the pitfalls of drinking and driving in the last 30 years is an advance worth celebrating. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving should be thanked for their efforts in this area. But, as the college presidents say, it is time for “an informed dispassionate debate” over the question of drinking age.