College presidents representing several respected universities have banded together* in an attempt to lower the minimum drinking age from 21 to 18. Their claim is that current alcohol age-restriction laws actually encourage clandestine binge drinking among underage students.
As a student who was, at one time, under the age of 21, it is difficult to suppress the still-present miscreant in me. Then the mature adult in me reminds the miscreant that I’m now well over 21 and this won’t really affect me anymore. The miscreant then retorts that I’m an old fart with an 8-month-old son, so this will affect me soon enough — and that miscreant is right on all counts.
To no one’s surprise, the well-intentioned group MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has stepped in and voiced its disagreement with the college presidents who raised the issue. MADD representatives have also taken it to another level by suggesting under their breaths that perhaps the colleges represented (including Duke, Dartmouth, and Virginia colleges Hollins, Washington & Lee, Sweet Briar, Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon) won’t enforce current drinking laws and should, therefore, be avoided by parents of up-and-coming college students.
Lowering the drinking age will lead to more DUI deaths, according to MADD, and the group cites statistics that indicated lower numbers of DUI-related deaths in the time span after the 21-as-minimum-age law took effect in 1984.
I’m not a math major, but 1984 was 24 years ago. Something I’ve discovered in my considerable time on this planet is that time has an effect on things. I was 5 years old in 1984 — I’m 29 now. I weighed 50 pounds in 1984 — I weigh 200 pounds now. The intervening time has seen two space shuttles destroyed, a Heisman Trophy winner commit two gruesome murders, a President who enjoys cigars in a very different way, and other atrocities that have changed the world. As the saying goes: everything changes, and nothing remains the same.
Why does this matter with drunken driving? I’ll tell you. Prior to 1984, drunken driving was not attached to a serious stigma. Thanks to increasingly easier access to media and multi-million dollar awareness campaigns, it’s a whole different beast now.
Pre-1984, if you were busted while driving drunk, perhaps even very drunk, you were just as likely to get a free ride home from the would-be arresting officer. Your biggest problem was getting a ride back the next day to pick up your car. In recent years, it doesn’t matter if your BAC is .09 or .29 — if you’re driving above the limit, you are arrested and charged with DUI, thus attaching a nearly unshakable stigma to yourself that will haunt you long after the difficult and expensive court proceedings are over.
Drunken driving is still going to happen, no matter what the legal drinking age, because drinking will still occur. One thing I remember about my experience, though, was that drinking was more fun before my 21st birthday than after. It was rebellious to be 18 or 19, off at college on my own, and downing tequila until I puked, then downing more. I felt mischievous, daring and invincible.
That ended the first time I walked in a liquor store after turning 21. I still felt sneaky and rebellious when I walked up to the counter and produced an ID. The problem is that now the ID was legitimate, and I was doing nothing that could possibly result in trouble. I realized it, and it changed my perception of alcohol entirely. After that point, I may as well have been purchasing Depends for Granny.
The point is, lowering the legal drinking age won’t curb underage drinking. What it will do is take away the clandestine rebelliousness of the act of drinking earlier than otherwise. It will produce a more seasoned young drinker, which will translate, on average, to a more responsible young drinker.
If MADD reps think the legality or lack thereof of drinking when you first set foot on a college campus will actually sway the actions and opinions of those just waiting for their parents to move their stuff in and head back home, then perhaps MADD reps need a beer or two to clear their minds.
So lower the drinking age to 18. Better yet, lower the drinking age to 16 and raise the driving age to 18 — get the alcohol-fueled stupidity out of kids’ systems before they ever get behind the wheel.
*Editor's note: For more information about the petition Daron is referring to in his post, see the Amethyst Initiative Web site.
**Previous posts by Daron Williams include "Refreshing Olympics with Replacements."