In the fall of 2010, a group of more than 100 college presidents — including the leaders of Dartmouth, Virginia Tech and Duke — signed a statement arguing that the legal drinking age of 21 wasn't working.
This argument is nothing new. Proponents of lowering the drinking age to 18 routinely surface with arguments that have become all too familiar. For example, these advocates often point out that if a young adult is old enough to go to war and vote, he should have the power to imbibe alcoholic beverages. They also cite Europe as an example of a lower drinking age that works. There are even organizations such as The National Youth Rights Association that suggest that the illegality of alcohol makes it more alluring.
But these notions are short-sighted. The drinking age shouldn't be lowered because of three very real risks: drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and violent and/or destructive behavior.
Above: Every 12 minutes, another person dies in a car accident.
1. Drunk Driving
Drunk driving is a blight on our civilization. An average of 17,000 individuals die each year in drunk driving related deaths. While the numbers have come down slightly — in 2010, for example, 10,228 individuals died from drunk driving related fatalities — drunk driving continues to be an enormously important public safety issue.
What is more, drinking and driving is strongly correlated with youth. According to M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), in 2010 the highest drunk driving rates were found amongst those ages 21 to 25 (23.4%), and 18 to 20 (15.1%). After age 25, the drunk driving rates decrease.
It seems quite plausible that were alcohol to be legalized for those under the age of 18, the 15.1% of 18 to 20 year olds who drink before getting behind the wheel would rise significantly. The fatalities caused by drinking and driving would likely rise as well.
Taking that chance seems irresponsible. As an article in MADD's Driven Magazine put it, "promoting 'responsible drinking and driving' is like promoting 'responsible drive-by shootings.'"
2. Binge Drinking and Alcohol Poisoning
Another critical reason not to lower the drinking age is the prevalence of binge drinking, particularly on college campuses. A brief stroll through nearly every major campus in America reveals a plethora of keg parties, crowded bars filled with fake ID wielding minors, and rowdy sorority and fraternity functions that rage through the night.
According to The Center For Science In The Public Interest, "44% of students attending 4-year colleges drink alcohol at the binge level or greater." What is more, as many as 30,000 college students need medical treatment each year to cope with alcohol poisoning. Fox News reports that 157 college-age individuals (ages 18 to 23) drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005. Given the epidemic of binge drinking among minors lowering the drinking age would be like subjecting a few dozen more Americans, each year, to the firing squad.
3. Alcohol-Associated Violent Behavior
A final reason to keep alcohol illegal for minors is its association with violent and/or destructive behavior.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, alcohol is associated with an increased risk of hazardous sexual behavior, academic failure, drug abuse, and alterations to the structure and function of the brain. The NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), found that "up to 86 percent of homicide offenders, 37 percent of assault offenders, [and] 60 percent of sexual offenders" were using alcohol at the time of the crime.
When you consider that adolescence is a time of great impulsivity and propensity to violence and/or destructive behavior, the dangers of legalizing alcohol among minors become that much more palpable.
In particular, the issue of date rape seems ominous. One study, conducted in Ireland, found alcohol to be the most prevalent date rape drug. Others studies have shown that "75 percent of male students and 55 percent of female students involved in date rape had been drunk or using drugs."
As per those who feel we should follow the European model, where drinking takes place relatively safely among young adults, with very few drunk driving incidents, we might bear in mind that Europeans, as a whole, are more reliant on public transport, which includes subways, buses, trams, bikes, and high-speed trains like Germany's ICE.
In other words, simply because drinking and driving rates are not particularly high in Europe among late teens does not mean this trend would continue in the U.S. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “It’s not that young people in Europe are more careful. It’s that they haven’t got the car.”
Additionally, for those who feel that those who enlist in the military should be able to drink legally, one might counter that the context is different.
Sure, at first glance, picking up a bottle seems less harmful than picking up a gun. Keep in mind, though, that the military allows such behavior under extreme supervision and in a highly targeted fashion. Throw in the extensive training involved, and you get a very different experience than allowing a young adult to imbibe a bottle of Jim Beam and, potentially, engage in a host of deleterious acts. Drunk driving, in particular, is far too common a hazard to allow the underage this needless license.
The late teens and early twenties are formative years where character building, leadership in the community, and scholastic excellence should be emphasized. Alcohol detracts from all of these. Because minors are prone to drunk driving, binge drinking, and violent and/or destructive behaviors it makes sense to continue to legally discourage their consumption of alcohol.
Yes, you can go to war, and you can vote — but that doesn't mean you're ready to drink.