America was misguided in raising the drinking age to 21

Party Gumby

Party Gumby

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind, -- Gumby rocks out to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” outside a bar during a bar crawl.

This column was printed in the Purdue Exponent on June 6, 2016.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -  Anyone who has been a college campus on a Thursday night is well aware that the 21-year old drinking age has led to a serious disrespect for the law in the United States. With states tightening establishment liability laws, most music venues, clubs and concerts have closed themselves off to patrons under 21. Young adults who would otherwise have no intention of committing a crime now turn to low-cost but high-quality fake IDs that are easily available the internet.

With commercial venues cut off to most college students, drinking has been driven underground to more unsupervised settings – in locked dorm rooms, frat house basements, parking lots. As a result, binge drinking has increased exponentially, especially on college campuses. According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 2,000 university students die every year from alcohol related causes. How did we get here?

Our current drinking age resulted from an epidemic of drunk driving in the 1970s. It was a different time when it came to the drinking and driving. Likewise, vehicle safety measures were far more lax. The phrase “designated driver” had yet to be coined, the legal drunk driving limit was nearly double what it is today and many authorities, including judges, didn’t view driving while drinking as a serious crime. On top of that, seatbelt compliance was not universally practiced and cars did not have airbags. Americans were far more likely to drive drunk and much more likely to die from a car crash than they are today.

It’s easy in hindsight to see why drunk driving accidents were unacceptably common place and why there was an impetus to do something to address this. But why does the United States still stand alone in the western world with a high drinking age of 21?

You can blame Indiana.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan established the Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving to research the epidemic and propose countermeasures to reduce the number of highway fatalities. In their final report, the commission cited scientific research that showed 21 year-olds were getting in less alcohol-related crashes than 18 to 20 year-olds. The commission specifically cited the example of the state of Illinois – when they raised their drinking age from 19 to 21 in 1977, traffic accidents plummeted. They concluded this was a matter of maturity. 21 year-olds were mature enough to drink; 20 year-olds weren’t.

But where the other factors that contributed to this drop in fatalities? This is where the 300-mile border that Indiana shares with Illinois comes in.

When the 26th Amendment – giving 18 year-olds the right to vote – was ratified in 1971, most states, including our neighbors in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, lowered the drinking age as well. Indiana kept their state drinking age at 21. 19 year-old Hoosiers would drive across state lines, get wasted and drive home under the influence.

So when Illinois raised their drinking age back to 21, traffic fatalities dropped. The commission concluded this was because 21 was a magic number where the human brain is mature enough to rationalize it’s a bad idea to drive drunk. Another reason could have been that young Hoosiers diverted to Michigan and Ohio instead of Illinois, until those states raised their drinking age as well.

An essential statistic in the commission’s determination that 21 was the appropriate age for a drink – that Illinois’s drunk driving fatality rate dropped after instituting a higher drinking age – may have been, in fact, due to booze-craving 19-year old Hoosiers driving in the opposite direction. As any good researcher would tell you there were too many variables in the equation – the multiplicity of drinking ages in neighboring states – to have conclusively decided that the age of 21 was the proper demarcation for responsible alcohol consumption.

There is no association between drinking age and alcohol related fatalities. The United Kingdom has experienced a much greater decline in drunk driving rates than the United States despite a drinking age of 18. So has Ireland. Europeans drink more than Americans, but Americans are more likely to die from alcohol-related causes. Reducing alcohol fatalities will not come from jacking up penalties for underage drinkers who have no intentions of driving that night or barring “impressionable” under-21 year-olds from the blues clubs of Chicago.

The United States needs a social shift in how we perceive alcohol. While severe penalties for drinking and driving should be maintained and enforced, the idea of 21 as the proper “mature” age for alcohol consumption needs to be dismissed. We need to introduce alcoholic beverages at a younger age as a part of the fabric of social gatherings. Too many college events today revolve around alcohol consumption as the primary activity.

A more responsible and mature attitude towards drinking would reduce the many aspects that currently plague college campuses such as binge drinking, sexual assaults and alcohol poisoning. By designating 18 to 20 years old as children when it comes to consuming alcohol, we absolve them of the responsibility and accountability that comes with being an adult.

It is time to grow up about alcohol at colleges. It’s time to treat us like adults.

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