As lawmakers across the country search for effective solutions to the persistent problem of binge drinking by young people, a prominent member of the presidential commission that recommended raising the drinking age to combat dangerous alcohol consumption has now called it “the single most regrettable decision” of his career. The law was signed by President Ronald Reagan 25 years ago this week.
Dr. Morris Chafetz, who founded the National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, said he reluctantly supported the recommendation but that “legal age 21 has not worked.” He is well known for taking on bold scientific claims and so-called experts, and rarely shies away from challenging the accepted norm. Chafetz says the law has resulted in “collateral, off-road damage” that includes thousands of injuries and fatalities that occur off the roadways.
“Legal Age 21 has not worked,” said Chafetz on the 25th anniversary of its enactment. “To be sure, drunk driving fatalities are lower now than they were in 1982. But they are lower in all age groups. And they have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19, as they have in the United States.”
While I'm sure that the implementation of the minimum legal age has had some effect, the decline in drunk driving fatalities can probably also be attributed to other factors, such as increased public awareness of the problem and more safety features in vehicles. In any case, drunk driving fatalities really should not be the only metric of the success of the minimum drinking age.
Recent research points to the growing number of binge drinkers among college age people, while other populations have seen declines. Unfortunately, the new data do not make clear what policies have contributed to those reductions. While there is no evidence of correlation, let alone solutions, those who oppose any re-examination of the Legal 21 law suggest that what is required is simply more enforcement. Dr. Chafetz adamantly disagreed.
“Enforcement is frustratingly difficult and usually forces the behavior deeper underground, into places where life and health are put at ever greater risk,” said Chafetz. “The 600,000 assaults reported annually, the date rapes, the property damage, the emergency room calls do not in general occur in places visible to the public. They are the inevitable result of what happens when laws do not reflect social or cultural reality.”
We know how well the "more enforcement" solution has worked for us in combating illegal drug use. I'd wager than, in spite of its increased cost, increased enforcement would achieve similarly negligible effects in combating underage drinking. Like Chavetz says, the problem is being driven into places where it's harder to enforce.
I still don't understand why we, as a nation, cannot have a discussion about alternatives to the currrent law. For example, what about a "graduated" approach to drinking? Many states already take such an approach to driving, through graduated drivers licenses. Here in Texas, for the first six months after passing their drivers' tests teenage drivers are restricted from driving with more than one other teenager in the car, using a cell phone, or being on the road between midnight and 5 a.m. There is also a teenage driver education program, Teens in the Driver Seat, that I happen to be very familiar with because Lori is the Houston Area Coordinator for the program at the Texas Transportation Institute. The results of this approach have clearly been quite successful, because Texas leads the nation in reducing teenage driver fatalities.