Should The Legal Drinking Age Be Lowered To 18 In The U.S.? (With Poll)
Posted by Casey on April 7, 2008
I’ve discussed this topic many times on my show, and thoroughly enjoy the discussion. So I figured I would prepare the topic for tonight’s program, and blog about it here while giving you a poll to express your thoughts (top left sidebar).
The debate about changing the legal drinking age in the U.S. to 18 once again usually illicits a strong response from both supporters and opponents. I was watching “The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet”, and they were debating this topic with several guests to the show. Unfortunately, the debate was not honest, and the guests who opposed the lower age were belligerent to those who support it. All except for one who was a police officer who lost his brother as a child to drunk driving. The other guests who oppose lowering the age to consume alcohol frequently interrupted those who support lowing the age, and two were flat out quacks.
The representative from MADD “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” only presented herself as an anti-war activist by saying that 18 year olds were not mature enough to serve in the military, and the military preys upon their young age because they will do whatever the military says. Got it, 18 year old soldiers are too stupid to think for themselves. I should probably point out that her face changed a couple shades of color as she began to yell this nonsense.
There was also a female doctor of sorts in the audience as a guest who elaborated upon what the MADD representative had just been saying. She would go on to say that humans will not “reach their potential” until their late twenties. Therefore alcohol prevents us from fully developing. This is not a new concept, and is fairly well understood. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that alcohol can’t throw a wrench in your physical development as a young person. However, the notion she was presenting that we are not developmentally prepared for alcohol, or other adult decisions, until our late twenties is ludicrous. Keep in mind she was somewhat defending the MADD representative’s statements about 18 year olds in the military. She was immediately challenged by one of the guests who supports lowing the age limit on alcohol. He quickly pointed out that you are fully capable of making adult decisions at 18, but was told he was wrong by this lady. Juliet, the show’s host, then asked this man what his medical background was. To which he replied that he had none, but had read several studies. I would have thrown in common sense in this exchange, but that’s just me. At this point another supporter of lowing the age limit, he was in the medical field, pointed out that the lady who was claiming we aren’t fully able to understand our decisions until we are in our late twenties was citing a study incorrectly. From what I gathered, he knew the studies author who had been complaining about people like her citing his study incorrectly … PWNED. This lady was citing some study, incorrectly as it turned out, to explain the very simple concept of maturity. Shortly after that the segment ended, and the show went onto some nonsensical topic, as they usually do.
After seeing such a disastrous segment on such an important topic, I had to pull up some data to continue the discussion here and on my show. I will give you the information from various sources that argue both sides, but you will get more data from the side supporting lowering the age limit. Not because of any bias on my part, but because the data supporting maintaining the current age limit of 21 is all based on one agency’s study. Aside from that one source, there is little information. I would also like to keep in mind that in 1997 I was nearly killed by a drunk driver just before I was to ship off for basic training at Fort Sill.
THE LEGAL ADULT
The debate about the legal drinking age not only rages here in the U.S., but it is debated around the globe as well. There is a huge difference between how we approach it, and how our European counterparts choose to address the issue. We tend to deny access to alcohol to prevent drunk driving. Europe more aggressively enforces their dui laws, and they have more severe penalties. While enforcement is a major factor in preventing dui accidents … it is only one part of the solution. Countries have to literally factor in dozens of issues to defeat the problem of dui accidents and deaths … especially with minors.
But what is a minor? That’s not as simple a question as many think it is. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago in our history that we were working, getting married, having children, and fighting in wars before we were teenagers, and that was all societal norm. In modern American society we find all of the above to be taboo and repugnant. Today the U.S. defines a legal adult as someone who is 18 or older. Here is a short list of rights you inherit by becoming a legal adult at 18.
- The right to vote.
- The right to join the military (actually 17 for some programs).
- The right to be tried as an adult.
- The right to be sentenced to life in prison.
- The right to be sentenced to death.
- The right to own property.
- The right to enter into a legal contract.
- The right to apply for credit.
- The right to independence from family, and society (live on your own).
- The right to buy cigarettes.
As you can see, by simply becoming a legal adult in the U.S. you receive great benefits, and risks, because society deems you mature enough to handle such responsibility. All of the items in the list come with great responsibility, and should not be taken lightly. So why is it that you are considered mature enough for all of these things, but not alcohol? Supporters of the 21 age limit argue that you should be 21 to drink alcohol in order to save lives. They cite traffic accidents, and physiological development as their two main points of reasoning. There is some serious problems with that logic, however well intentioned it may be.
Let’s forget about driving for a second and focus on physiological damage to your body, and deaths resulting in consumption. If you should not drink alcohol before you’re 21 because it may harm you, why are you allowed to buy cigarettes at 18? That makes no sense whatsoever. You are more than five times more likely to die from tobacco than alcohol. No doubt you will find overwhelming support from those who support keeping the drinking age at 21 to require the same for cigarettes. They aren’t the hypocrites here, but society is and government are.
So how many countries agree with the U.S. on the drinking age being 21? You might be surprised to find out that the answer is none. No other country in the world has a minimum drinking age of 21. We are it, but that doesn’t mean we are wrong either. It’s just an important fact you should keep in the back of your head.
So what about the driving aspect of alcohol? This is the second biggest factor in reducing the drinking age to 18. Opponents say that if we lowered the age to 18 we would have more traffic deaths as a result. Really, the only thing going for this argument is the “common sense” feel to it. Common sense seems to dictate that if young people are allowed to drink, we will have more traffic accidents and deaths as a result. Again, from a common sense approach this jives. Unfortunately, the statistics on this line of thinking are sketchy at best. I dare you to look for statistics that separate the number of 18-20 year olds who were driving, and caused an accident, from those over 21. It’s nearly impossible. The problem gets even worse when you try to find those stats from 1980-present day. To be honest, in months of looking for a study that shows those numbers without blending them with older age groups, or deviating from the focus of minors, has been nearly futile. They seem to not exist in any official capacity. The point of going back to 1980 is to compare the data from before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed to see if it has really made a difference in the number alcohol related deaths … especially among minors.
WHAT DOES THE DATA SAY
MADD says their organization has helped reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities by about 44 percent … many of them minors who would have driven under the influence. MADD and other supporters of keeping the drinking age at 21 really only have one true study they cite to support their argument. In 2004 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report in which they said that since the laws were passed raising the drinking age to 21 nearly 23,000 people had been saved. You will see this report cited by nearly every other opponent of lowing the drinking age. The problem is that the number of lives saved that is given in this report is, in fact, a guess. The report even admits as such in its own content, and is rightly criticized by experts for this flaw.
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There seems to be no solid proof that raising the drinking age to 21 has prevented any alcohol related deaths with minor drivers.
While alcohol related deaths, across the board, have declined since 1982 … it wasn’t until the nineties that significant drops became a reality. There are numerous factors that can be attributed to this progress. Among them is certainly an education factor, but the most likely reason for this positive trend is automobile safety technology.
While finding official numbers from 1980-present for minors responsible for dui accidents are difficult to find … there is one source you can look at. YAERD “Young Adults Educating Responsible Drinking” has compiled some stats that show interesting results. Their stats show the complete opposite of what has been touted by supporters of keeping the drinking age 21. Remember the law changing the drinking age to 21 was passed in 1984 to respond to a growing number of minors drinking and driving. So how effective was the new law? Not very effective at all as it turns out.
YAERD stats show that while the law was passed in 1984 there was not a drop in dui accident injuries until 1993. That’s a full 9 years before we started seeing a decline. The numbers for deaths didn’t fair any better. From 1993-2002 the numbers were a lot better than they were in the 80’s, but have seesawed between higher and lower numbers of injuries. The question we have to ask ourselves now is whether or not the 1984 law really was effective if it yielded no results for 9 years. I’m not so sure it has, and I’m not the only one picking up on this.
Rutgers did a study that shows that 18-20 year olds were simply replaced by 21-24 year olds in fatalities with the age laws. In other words, lives were not saved. The age of those who died simply changed. The Rutgers study seems to suggest that it really isn’t the age that is an issue. It is the point in which you are allowed to legally purchase alcohol. Apparently the mad rush to get alcohol once it is legal to do so has the same effect regardless of age. They concluded that drinking experience, not age, was the most important factor. This is something the Europeans agree with. They feel the more exposed to alcohol you are, the less likely you will become enchanted by it.
Now for the some good news. We are making progress in underage drinking. It is clearly still a big problem, but positive news should be well received. I doubt it was one thing that has led to this trend. It is certainly the byproduct of several measures we’ve taken as a society. Before deciding if we need to repeal the current drinking age we must come to a conclusion as to whether lowing the age will overturn the current progress we are having with underage drinking. For that I have no answer.
By now many of you reading this will assume I’m for lowing the drinking age to 18. Not necessarily. I hate societal double standards more than just about anything in this world. Is your pet a living creature, or a piece of property? Are you an adult at 18, or not? If you are an adult at 18 you should be allowed to throw back a beer. If you aren’t then you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t be considered an adult in any other capacity either. Either you are mature enough to go to war, go to prison, be sentenced to death, vote, buy cigarettes, and buy alcohol, or you’re not. Our society has to make a decision, or these debates will rage forever. Either you are an adult at 18 in the United States, or you are an adult at 21. What will it be? It is not unreasonable to ask society to make a choice between these two ages, but it is unreasonable to pick and choose when you are an adult or not. We just have to stick with whichever we decide.
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