Debates over drinking in the United States are nothing new. There was Prohibition in the beginning of the last century, which proved extremely counterproductive. Twenty-nine states lowered their drinking age during the Vietnam era, but then in 1984, Washington made state highway funding conditional on raising the drinking age to 21.
The debate has now started up again with 129 college and university presidents signing the Amethyst Initiative. The initiative’s Web site states that “Twenty-one is not working,” and that “It’s time to rethink the drinking age.” An open debate is always a good thing, but University President Steven Knapp is fully justified in his decision to not sign the petition. The drinking age should remain at 21.
Most important is the safety issue. The Centers for Disease Control examined 50 peer-reviewed studies of countries that lowered their drinking age to 18. They found that fatalities increased by 10 percent in those countries. Another study, funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, found that there had been an 11 percent drop in youth traffic deaths that resulted from alcohol use. This study eliminated other factors, such as improvements in roads and cars, to isolate the effect of a higher drinking age on driving fatalities.
Although binge drinking is a dangerous problem, it is more important to ensure that drunk drivers do not go out and kill others on the road. The year before Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, 16-to-24 year olds accounted for 42 percent of all fatal alcohol-related traffic accidents. Too many innocent people still die in car accidents with drunk drivers. Allowing the most dangerous age group access to alcohol is only asking for trouble.
Instead, what needs to happen is an expansion of amnesty programs like GW’s that ensure those who need medical attention can get it without their friends worrying about getting into trouble.
One argument states that other Western countries have lower drinking ages and do not binge drink to the same degree as Americans. Yet Australia and England are two examples of nations known for their energetic drinking culture. For instance, in Munich, Germany, the Australian government found that it had to open a temporary consulate during Oktoberfest because too many Australians were getting drunk and losing their passports and wallets. Drug and Alcohol Services in South Australia reported in April that two young people die each week from binge drinking there. Simply removing some of the stigma surrounding alcohol is not a quick fix to curbing binge drinking.
A lower legal age for the consumption of alcohol is only going to make the substance more accessible to those in high school. Putting the ability to purchase alcohol in the hands of high school seniors who can provide it to underclassman friends will just make it easier for those teenagers to drink.
Now some may argue that I’m only saying this because I am now 21 and can drink legally. That may factor in to my thinking, but turning 21 has allowed me to take a more objective look at the situation, instead of simply complaining about how I could not drink legally. Sure, I wish I could have been visiting Adams Morgan, Georgetown and all the wonderful bars in D.C. when I was 18, but the law saves lives.
A lower drinking age isn’t the solution to the problem of binge drinking. Rather, better education on its risks for students entering college and extending amnesty from university punishment to those that seek medical attention are the best possible ways to combat the hazards of binge drinking.
The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.