You may or may not know that I'm in favor of lowering the legal drinking age (LDA)in the U.S., for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that I believe the 21 LDA is poorly-conceived policy that has actually increased dangerous drinking by driving drinking underground. Young adults are denied access to the places where normal, structured drinking takes place -- the tavern, the restaurant, the brewpub -- and instead learn the bad habits of the house party, the frat party, drinking and driving on the run while avoiding notice.
I've wanted to look at some information that might help solve the question of whether the 21 LDA has saved lives or cost them, but that kind of data-digging is not a full-time job for me. I haven't been able to come up with anything I'd rely on. What I have found is a number of mistakes, exaggerations, and outright lies in the numbers put out by the anti-alcohol establishment. That made me think that the booze industry should really have a clearinghouse for straight, unspun alcohol research, and figure out a way to sponsor unbiased alcohol research.
John McCardell beat me to it. McCardell is the emeritus president of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and has been one of the few college administrators willing to speak up on this issue. He did so most publicly in a New York Times editorial in 2004 in which he called the 21 LDA "bad social policy and terrible law." Here are the relevant bits:
To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.
Neither state is desirable. State legislators, many of whom will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age. Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.
And please - hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we'd raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem.
Strong words. Now McCardell has taken strong action to match them. He announced yesterday that he was leaving his teaching position at Middlebury College to start a new research group called Choose Responsibility. McCardell has been researching the ramifications of changing the 21 LDA, supported by a grant from the Robertson Foundation. The time has come for action.
What's he basing the action on, what did the research turn up? Pretty interesting stuff. First, as I suspected, the 20,000 lives supposedly saved by the implementation of the 21 LDA are not so concrete. Here's the low-down on that from an article that appeared in the Middlebury Campus yesterday:
Citing a National Highway Transit Safety Authority (NHTSA) study, [student researcher Amanda] Goodwin said, "[We found] that there was no demonstrable cause and effect relationship between the 21 year-old drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, but rather, that the decrease in drunken driving fatalities could be attributed to a composite of other factors. More important contributing factors include safer motor vehicles, more vigorous law enforcement, shifts in societal trends and fluctuations in the population of relevant age cohorts."
The decline in traffic fatalities following the lowering of the drinking age is one of the main reasons opponents give for maintaining the current drinking age. However, Goodwin said that according to NHTSA data, "More lives have been saved in the last two years from seat belts and airbags than in the entire history of the 21-year-old drinking age."
Amazing? Not really. The anti-alcohol people are just not that good at connecting cause and effect.
And the main thrust of Choose Responsibility? Continued research, creating a network of researchers, and fund-raising to support a grass-roots campaign to explore the real possibility of alternatives to the current laws. For instance...
Rather than simply lowering the national legal drinking age from 21 to 18, Choose Responsibility advocates that states launch alcohol education programs to teach young adults about responsible purchase, possession and consumption. Upon successful completion of a course, a participant could receive a license to consume and purchase alcohol at the age of 18.A drinking license. What a beautiful, simple idea. Of course, you can tell that it came from a far-off state: only legal in the state of residence? What fun is that to the hordes of New Jersey folks who can't wait to go drink in Philly and New York? Ah, I jest. But truly, a brilliant idea.
The license would be legal in the state in which the 18-year-old is a resident, and in the state in which he or she attends college, if they attend out of state. Individuals who drank illegally before turning 21 or before receiving the 18 year-old license, would delay their eligibility for the license.
A web site is planned for mid-March. I'll have it here, count on it (It's up: ChooseResponsibility.org, along with a blog). I really believe that this is the right way to treat our serious national problem of dangerous drinking. Well, one right way. Getting everyone to think more deeply about what they're drinking, why they're drinking it, and what they could be drinking that's better tasting is always good too.