A Discussion Worth Having

The top story at MSNBC.com right now is over the renewed debate over drinking age laws, and it's a debate that's long overdue.

Proponents of the change (changes, really, since there's no uniform federal drinking age law) make the case that the lowered drinking age hasn't slowed underage drinking, but that it has pushed it underground and out of the sight of responsible adults. That's a position I'm pretty allied with (not to mention that I find it clearly age-discriminatory), in large part because I see evidence of it in my workplace. I teach college freshpeople and sophomores for the most part, and they're generally under 21, and they're often hungover in class after certain big events. Like Tuesdays.

Yes, it's anecdotal evidence, but given the study that MADD and the NTSB use as evidence that the change has worked, I feel on pretty solid ground.

That figure is disputed by proponents of lowering the drinking age. They have questioned the NHTSA study, which did not explain how it arrived at its estimate. Moreover, it counted any accident as “alcohol-related” if any participant was legally drunk — including victims who may not have been responsible for the accident.

“The methodology used has been widely criticized by scholars,” said Hanson, of SUNY-Potsdam, who called the report “really more of a guesstimate” that showed only a correlation of numbers, not a causal relationship. In fact, he said, alcohol-related traffic fatalities among minor drivers were already declining before 1984, when the drinking-age measure was passed.

I can throw an even more likely reason why alcohol-related fatalities among minors were declining during that period out there for you. Stricter enforcement and better education on the dangers of drunk driving. I can't be the only one who remembers the ramping up of opposition to drunk driving in the late 70s and early 80s, the call for stricter penalties, the tv movies, the mandatory jail sentences for multiple offenses, etc. I remember seeing the drunk check roadblocks on Friday and Saturday nights, the advent of the Breathalyzer and the BA test. All these things contributed, I would argue, far more than changing the laws that meant legal adults couldn't buy alcohol.

I'm not recommending a full scale repeal of the drinking age laws across the nation, not yet anyway. But it is a discussion we ought to have, and I'm glad some people are starting to have it.

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