Lowering the drinking age

Recently, over 100 college and university presidents signed a statement calling for the legal drinking age in the United States to be lowered from 21 to 18.  Of course, each state can technically establish its own drinking age, but the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 penalizes any state which sets an age lower than 21 by depriving it of 10% of its federal highway money; the act is up for renewal in 2009 and the statement signers wish to ignite discussion of the issue in advance of debate on the act.

Most recent op-eds on the matter, like “Higher drinking age saves young people’s lives“, are opposed to lowering the legal drinking age on the grounds that there is good evidence that more people would die in alcohol-related traffic accidents if the age is modified downward.  The crux of the aforementioned article is this:

The lethal combination of inexperienced driving with inexperienced drinking has been well established. The over-representation of 18 to 23 year olds we currently see involved in alcohol-related crashes would shift to center on 18, meaning we’d see more 16 to 20 year olds in crashes involving alcohol.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the MLDA 21 laws have saved more than 25,000 lives since 1975, or approximately 1,000 lives per year. MLDA 21 laws are one of the most studied public health policies ever. The number of traffic fatalities involving underage drunk drivers has been cut in half since the early 1980s and the declines began immediately after the laws were implemented.

A recent Slate article, reports that “From 1977 to 2007, the percentage of 12th graders drinking at least monthly fell from 70 percent to 45 percent—almost immediately after the law was enacted, and lastingly. Fatal car crashes involving drunk young adults dipped 32 percent, resulting in 1,000 fewer lives lost per year.”  They also point out that after New Zealand lowered their drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999 fatal car crashes among young people increased significantly.  They link to a study whose findings are as follows:

Results. Among young men, the ratio of the alcohol-involved crash rate after the law change to the period before was 12% larger (95% confidence interval [CI]=1.00, 1.25) for 18- to 19-year-olds and 14% larger (95% CI=1.01, 1.30) for 15- to 17-year-olds, relative to 20- to 24-year-olds. Among young women, the equivalent ratios were 51% larger (95% CI=1.17, 1.94) for 18- to 19-year-olds and 24% larger (95% CI=0.96, 1.59) for 15- to 17-year-olds. A similar pattern was observed for hospitalized injuries.

Conclusions. Significantly more alcohol-involved crashes occurred among 15-to 19-year-olds than would have occurred had the purchase age not been reduced to 18 years. The effect size for 18- to 19-year-olds is remarkable given the legal exceptions to the pre-1999 law and its poor enforcement.

While one could make arguments that lowering the drinking age will lower alcohol-impaired driving, they are rarely backed with hard data; contrariwise, there appears to be a surfeit of data which indicate that more people will die if the drinking age is lowered.  Several of these articles point out that strong enforcement of the laws is not needed to realize significant benefits from them, though more enforcement would likely help. 

Slate points out that binge drinking on campus varies widely between states and even between schools within the same city.  Rates correlate with local drinking culture and the presence and enforcement of alcohol-related policies, by both law enforcement and college officials.


2 comments so far

  1. omegamormegil on

    Interesting. I’d be inclined to lower the legal drinking age to 18, out of fairness to people we’ve just deemed adults. At 18 they can legally serve in military service, sell their souls to money lenders, and get married (without the champagne).

    Of course, I don’t want to see more alcohol related fatal traffic accidents.

    If lowering the drinking age increases these types of fatalities, would raising it even more reduce them further? Perhaps the legal drinking age should be 25, or maybe 30? I bet if the legal drinking age was 30 years old, the number of alcohol related fatal traffic accidents would drop an awful lot.

  2. Tim on

    Jacob, you have great blogging skills. Perhaps I will hear your name on the Hugh Hewitt show one day. (He spends a lot of time reporting what bloggers are saying, and even wrote a book about entitled Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World.)

    On the drinking issue, your data is hard to argue against even though it goes against my personal preference. This is perhaps the only area in which I wish the US were more like Europe. But we are not, our history has made us a different people.

    That being said, I wonder if there are any comparative data to show that the enforcement of public intoxication laws–ideally punishing minors as adults and punishing the parents/guardians of minors as well–can have the same effect as enforcment of drinking age laws? Or, could we get the same results from enforcing drinking age laws if those laws only prohibited sale to minors, and not consumption by minors?

    There is, I think, also a question of the constitutionality of a federal law on alcohol consumption.

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