When the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed, states were forced to raise their legal drinking age to 21 or face a 10 percent decrease in federal highway funding. Politicians across the board widely ignore the issue today because they have very little reason not to. For one, the issue only directly affects a small demographic — 18-20-year-old voters. But even if state politicians did want to change the law, the resulting denial of federal highway funds would be political suicide.
Because of this, American adults who are old enough to marry, adopt children, serve on juries, enter into contracts, operate businesses, employ others, go to prison, be executed, obtain abortions, hunt with deadly weapons, fly airplanes, drive cars, purchase pornography, vote and risk their lives in the military are victims of political maneuvering. If those adults do decide to drink, they risk losing their driver’s licenses, being fined up to $500, 8-40 hours of community service and possibly even jail time. Mark Beckner, the police chief of Boulder, Colorado, sees the failure of our exceptional ly high drinking age firsthand:
“The overall advantage [of lowering the drinking age] is we’re not trying to enforce a law that’s unenforceable. The abuse of alcohol and the over-consumption of alcohol and DUI driving — those are the areas where we’ve got to focus our efforts. Not on chasing kids around trying to give them a ticket for having a cup of beer in their hand,” he said during an interview with 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl in 2010.
Because those under 21 aren’t allowed to drink legally, they do it in unsafely in un-monitored settings. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by those under 21 in the United States is consumed in the form of binge drinking, in which dangerous amounts of alcohol are consumed in a short period. Even many on our own campus admit to binge drinking. Because they cannot consume alcohol in public, underage students will often “pre-game” (to avoid being caught in the act) before they go out. Spencer Wood, a freshman from Dallas, doesn’t have much faith in the effectiveness of drinking laws: “Whatever the legal drinking age, kids will continue to defy it.”
For some, the very fact that binge drinking is so widespread is a reason to keep it illegal for those under 21, to avoid making access to alcohol even easier. According to Dr. Adron Harris, director of UT’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol & Addiction Research, “It is clearly beneficial to restrict availability of alcohol, particularly for teenagers and to reduce the harm produced by alcohol.”
Another reason cited by advocates for the current drinking age is the reduction in alcohol-related fatalities. But according to Michelle Minton, Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “Such fatalities indeed decreased about 33 percent from 1988 to 1998 — but the trend is not restricted to the United States. In Germany, for example, where the drinking age is 16, alcohol-related fatalities decreased by 57 percent between 1975 and 1990. The most likely cause for the decrease in traffic fatalities is a combination of law enforcement, education, and advances in automobile-safety technologies such as airbags and roll cages.”
I am in no way implying that alcohol is completely problem-free. As Dr. Harris noted, “Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the major health problems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. In terms of disability and loss of productivity, alcohol problems have almost as much impact as cancer or heart disease.” But alcohol is dangerous for all ages. Tobacco is dangerous, driving is dangerous and war is dangerous, yet in those areas we still allow 18-year-olds to make their own choices. Choose Responsibility President Emeritus John M. McCardell sums up the double standard: “Some also argue that the drinking age should be kept at 21 because the brain doesn’t finish maturing until around age 25, but in that case we should also raise the voting age and the military age. We have to be consistent.”
There’s a simple solution. McCardell proposes that we “prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol in the same way we prepare them to operate a motor vehicle: by first educating and then licensing and permitting them to exercise the full privileges of adulthood so long as they demonstrate their ability to observe the law.”
Additional changes could also be made to encourage public safety. Asked how to decrease drunken driving, Jose Nino, a senior majoring in government and history, told me, “Loosening up zoning laws that restrict neighborhood bar options would also help out in curbing drunken driving-related accidents.” This, of course, wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it could definitely help. We must approach alcohol-related problems from many different directions if we hope to succeed.
We cannot and should not ignore the issues that come with alcohol abuse. But we need to focus on the abuse of alcohol and drunken driving, rather than the responsible consumption of alcohol by those considered adults in almost every other aspect of the law. We need to lower the drinking age to 18.
McCann is a Plan II freshman from Dallas.