The Debate About Lowering the Drinking Age

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Back in 2003, when then-President George W. Bush's 19-year-old daughter was arrested for underage drinking offenses, the debate about lowering the legal drinking age once again came into the national spotlight.

Jenna Bush's two arrests in less than a month, for consuming alcohol and trying to purchase alcohol with a fake identification card, placed the drinking age debate in the national media, with the old argument that if an 18-year-old is old enough to vote, sign contracts, join the armed forces, and get married, he or she should be old enough to drink a beer.

"It's one of the stupidest laws in America," Justin Schmid, 21, a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas told reporters. "You can be drafted by your country, go to war—yet you can't have a beer. You can be tried as an adult—yet you can't have a beer."

But is it that stupid?

The problem with the arguments for lowering the legal drinking age is it is simply not in the best interest of the public's safety to do so. Underage drinkers are a danger to themselves and others, especially on the highways.

We Tried Lowering the Limit Before

The drinking age was first lowered to 18 in many states back in the Vietnam War era. The country was asking thousands of its young men to fight and die for their country on foreign soil, so the popular thinking was, "How can we ask them to die for their country and not let them have a drink if they want one?"

But the lower drinking age begins to take a toll on the nation's highways. The number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities began to rise at alarming rates and a high percentage of those involved young drivers. Congress again put pressure on the states to raise the drinking age because of this startling increase in highway deaths, and the age-21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) was universally adopted nationwide as of July 1, 1998.

Higher Drinking Age Simply Saves Lives

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that raising the drinking age to 21 has reduced traffic fatalities involving 18- to 20-year-old drivers by 13 percent and has saved an estimated twenty thousand lives from 1975 to 2003. According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, between 1982 (the first year of record-keeping, with an all-time high of 5215 persons under age 21 killed in drunk-driving accidents) and 2017 (most recent statistics, 1064 under age 21 killed), drunk driving fatalities nationally fell by almost half, down 48%, while all-cause driving fatalities fell 16%. Drunk driving fatalities among persons under 21 fell almost 80%. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, drinking among persons not even eighteen years old --- highschoolers --- is still run amok: one in ten highschoolers drinks and drives, even though that statistic has fallen by more than half (54%) since 1991. Drivers who are young and drinking (ages 16-20, blood alcohol level .08%) are seventeen times more likely to die in a car crash.

It is illegal in all US states for anyone under age 21 to drive after drinking any alcohol. Minimum legal drinking age laws make alcohol sales to minors (anyone under age 21) illegal in all states. Every state has adopted zero tolerance laws making it illegal in ever state to sell alcohol to anyone under 21.

The evidence for keeping the drinking age at 21 is so overwhelming we doubt the debate would have surfaced again at all had Jenna Bush been merely another college student, rather than the young, attractive daughter of the President of the United States.

And if she had been arrested for causing an accident in which someone was injured or killed, rather than just trying to use a fake ID, we suspect the national media would have come down on the other side of the lower drinking age debate.

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  1. AlcoholPolicyMD. Press Room. Media Kits. Addressing the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) in College Communities. Chicago, Ill.: American Medical Association Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, 2005

  2. AlcoholPolicyMD. Press Room. Media Kits. Addressing the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) in College Communities. Chicago, Ill.: American Medical Association Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, 2005

  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. Calculating Lives Saved Due to Minimum Drinking Age Laws. By John Kindelberger. DOT HS 809 860. Updated March 2005. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration National Center for Statistics and Analysis 2005

  4. Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. Drunk Driving Fatalities. Arlington, Va.: Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility 2017

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs. Teen Drinking and Driving. A Dangerous Mix. October 2012. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs. Teen Drinking and Driving. A Dangerous Mix. October 2012. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012