Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Drinking Age: It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

The conservative members of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon held a wingding at Dorchester last week, and one of the surprises was the overwhelming consensus

Posted By on Wed, Mar 11, 2009 at 12:39 PM

The conservative members of the Taxpayer Association of Oregon held a wingding at Dorchester last week, and one of the surprises was the overwhelming consensus in favor of allowing states to lower the drinking age.


As reported on the Oregon Catalyst blog, association members voted 215-69 in support of changing US law so states that reduce the drinking age below 21 wouldn't risk losing federal highway dollars.

The conservos at Dorchester have some strange bedfellows on this issue: Last summer, a group of 100 American college presidents called for lowering the drinking age to 18. (Cynics say their motive is to relieve their colleges of the burden of enforcing the age-21 limit on campus.)

The Eye grew up in New Jersey when the legal drinking age in that state was 21. The big thing for Jersey kids in those days was to drive to New York, where the drinking age was 18. The resulting highway slaughter eventually shamed New York into raising its age limit to 21.

Then came the Vietnam War, and with it the argument - specious, but persuasive at the time - that "if you're old enough to die for your country you're old enough to buy a beer." More than half the states lowered their drinking age below 21. Traffic fatalities soared.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan (the Dorchester crowd's great hero, ironically) signed into law the Uniform Drinking Age Act, basically forcing all the states to set the limit at 21 within five years.

The results were impressive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration subsequently found that in 1982 more than 10,000 drivers under the age of 21 were involved in fatal crashes nationwide, and 43% of them had been drinking. Sixteen years later, the number of under-21 drivers in fatal crashes had dropped to a little over 8,000, of whom only 21% had been drinking. "Comparing 1998 with 1982, the number of youthful drivers involved in fatal crashes declined by 21% and the number who had been drinking declined by 61%," the NHTSA reported.

One argument you always hear for lowering the drinking age is that the present limit is widely violated. By the same logic, we should repeal the laws against rape and murder because they're frequently broken too.

And based on our own experience as a former teenager and the parent of a former teenager, The Eye knows that the lower the legal age limit is, the earlier kids will be drinking illegally. If the limit is 21, they'll use fake IDs and older friends to get alcohol when they're 18. If the limit is 18, they'll be getting booze at 16 - or less.

The Eye doesn't agree with a lot of things that Ronald Reagan did, but making the states raise the drinking age to 21 is one of them. And that's where it should stay.

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