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August 27, 2008
Column #1,410
Why the Drinking Age Should Not Be Lowered to 18
by Mike McManus

The presidents of 120+ universities, such as Duke, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse and Maryland -  have signed on to an "Amethyst Initiative" in which they say, "It is time to rethink the drinking age. In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state's federal highway appropriation on any state which set its drinking age lower than 21.

"Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convince us that `twenty-one is not working.' A culture of dangerous, clandestine `binge drinking' - often conducted off campus - has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students."

"Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake ID's, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

Therefore, they called upon elected officials to "support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age, to consider whether the 10% highway fund `incentive' encourages or inhibits that debate."

I am familiar with this kind of reasoning. I used to use it when I was 18, living in Connecticut, where the minimum age was 21.  However, I could drive to Port Chester, NY where I could buy drinks at age 18. Fortunately, I made it back, but others did not.

The university presidents make a seemingly plausible case for lowering the drinking age (though they say they are only asking for a public debate).  However, as university presidents, surely they know something about research.  Yet they present no data to back up their hunches.

Why?  There is none, and they know it.

I checked with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and learned that in 1982 there were 1,826 drivers aged 16-20 who died with a Blood Alcohol Content of more than .08.  That number dropped by 54% to 829 in 1992, saving 1,000 lives a year due to the higher drinking age. What's more interesting is that number of those aged 21-30 dying due to drunk driving also dropped from 3,948 in 1982 to 2,759, saving another 1,200 lives.

Saving 2,200 lives a year, plus countless injuries is a big victory.

The heroines in this battle were Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was organized by Candy Lightener, who lost her daughter to a drunk driver. She and other MADD activists persuaded Congress in 1984 to cut 10 percent of transportation funding to any state which did not raise its drinking age to 21.  More than 30 states did so.

There is a real problem of "binge drinking" on college campuses where more than half of students will drink five or more drinks in a sitting (four among females).  The question is, how will lowering the drinking age do anything but encourage more binge drinking by younger kids?

No wonder Congress is unimpressed. "This small minority of college administrators wants to undo years of success that defies common sense," said N.J. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. "We need to do all we can to protect the national drinking age - a law that saves the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians across the country each year."

What's needed is enforcement of existing laws - just what the college presidents seem reluctant to do.  Instead of doing their job, they want to wash their hands of any responsibility.

What can be done?  MADD pointed to the example of the University of Rhode Island which was ranked the #1 Party School in America by the Princeton Review for 1993 and 1994. Prof. Henry Weschler of Harvard documented that 67 percent of URI students were binge drinkers. 

URI President Robert Carothers decided crack down.  First, he prohibited all alcohol at any social functions on campus, a dramatic change. Drunk students began to be fined $50 for a first infraction, $100 for a second, and suspension after a 3rd offense. Nine fraternities were closed from 1992-2001 for substantial abuse violations.  Some have reopened as alcohol free fraternities.  The number of binge drinkers dropped from 67 to 54 percent, the U.S. average.
Carothers acknowledges "We are an institution in recovery."

Students said the crackdown would result in fewer students applying to URI.  Actually, parents and students like the new rules.  The number of freshman entering this year will be the largest ever.

What can also make a difference is a crackdown by local police working with a college. In Huntington, WV, police made frequent sobriety checkpoints, and checks of bars near Marshall College for underage drinkers. The odds of a 16-20 year old driver with a BAC level above .05 were reduced by a whopping 93 percent.

We do not weaker laws - only enforcement of existing ones.

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