Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Legal Drinking Age

My son turns 21 this fall and recently made a comment to me about how ridiculous it was that the drinking age was 21 when in all other matters he was a legal adult at 18. Didn't I agree, he asked. I said no, I thought it was a good idea as it postponed the link between being a new driver and a new drinker. Raising the drinking age had lowered deaths by drinking and driving, I said. I knew I had read that somewhere.

Of course I didn't think the same when the legal drinking age of 19 was snatched away from me in Pennsylvania in 1979. I went from being of age to not while I was in college. How unfair was that?

In any case I see, via Andrew Sullivan, that one of the architects of the national law that raised the drinking age to 21 in 1984 now repents of his earlier work. Dr. Morris Chafet was a psychiatrist who served on the presidential committee that pushed to have the legal drinking age raised to 21:
Chafet describes his effort to raise the drinking age as the "single most regrettable decision" of his career. "To be sure, drunk driving fatalities are lower now than they were in 1982," Chafet notes. "But they are lower in all age groups. And they have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19, as they have in the United States."

That observation, while welcome, hardly warrants a "better late than never" response. As Chafet also notes in his piece, the arbitrary age restriction is partially to blame for things like binge drinking, injury, and property destruction. Simply passing a law isn't going to stop young adults from drinking, an activity that has long been a sign of adulthood. Yet because of the fear of punishment, those young adults are much less likely to seek help when the partying gets out of hand, and the results are frequently disastrous. Furthermore, underage drinking only breeds disrespect for the law. So much for keeping people safe.
So, yes it is true that drunk driving fatalities are lower among teens, but they are also lower among all groups. What is that they say about statistics? I can't imagine any political scenario that would undo the current drinking age, but it would be ironic if just as my son turned 21 the legal age was lowered to 18.

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