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The National Drinking Age Pt 3: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

Photo by happy_as_a_clam66 via Flickr

This past January the Vermont legislature began to debate two resolutions regarding the drinking age in Vermont. While one resolution proposed reopening the debate on the legal drinking age in Vermont, the other urged Congress “to authorize alternative waivers to the 21-year-old minimum drinking age that do not entail federal highway funding penalties for states (H.R. 25).”  Essentially the debate—as it stands in—Vermont focuses on two distinct issues: is twenty one the appropriate age and who gets to decide?

So while much of the focus has been on 18 vs. 21, another issue is at play: states’ rights. It’s easy to quickly dismiss the states’ rights issue by noting that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act DOES allow states to set their own drinking age; however, the threat of withholding 10% of federal highways funds essentially takes away that choice by making states go without a significant amount of funding. For Vermont, that 10% amount to $17.5 million dollars a year, a sum so large it essentially stifles any informed debate on the drinking age.

Many great arguments have been put forth in favor of allowing adults to legally consume alcohol at the age of eighteen. If they are mature enough to make life or death decisions while serving their country at war, they can make responsible decisions about consuming alcohol. If they can vote for their elected leaders thereby helping to shape the policies of the United States, they can make responsible decisions about consuming alcohol. Let’s step aside from these arguments for a moment and instead focus on the argument that matters most.

Any good policy analysis (and policy development for that matter) should start with a simple question: what are we trying to accomplish? In the case of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the goal was clear: lowering the incidences of drunken driving fatalities. Certainly this is a goal worthy of pursuit.  Once we are clear on the purpose of any policy, we must then assess the best way to achieve that policy, keeping in mind that “getting tough” isn’t always the best means.

It’s pretty clear from my previous discussion on this topic, that while drunken driving fatalities did appear to decrease, the most significant decreases occurred well after the passage of the national minimum drinking age; in fact, these significant increases seemed to occur in conjunction with educational approaches. As we began to educate the public about the dangers of drinking and driving and offer alternatives to drinking and driving (i.e. designated drivers, Tow to Go), the rates of drunken driving began to decrease significantly.

It is often suggested that the reason the drinking age was set at twenty one as opposed to eighteen is because of the inexperience of young drivers with both driving and alcohol. While I agree that young adults are more inexperienced with both driving and responsible alcohol consumption, I do NOT agree that the best way with which to contend this issue is to simply increase the drinking age. Increasing the drinking age simply displaces the problem to a different age group. The key to tackling any problem is to tackle the underlying issue, which, in this case, is responsible driving and responsible alcohol consumption.

Our society approaches the first part of the problem relatively well and while there is variation amongst the states, most states have programs that educate adolescent drivers in the hopes of instilling responsible driving behavior. These programs include drivers’ education requirements, graduated licenses, and restrictions about the times during which young drivers can be on the road without an adult. Where we drop the ball is with educating our young people about responsible alcohol consumption.

As John McCardell, former President of Middlebury College and Founder of Choose Responsibility, says we don’t give “them the keys once they’re old enough, without training.” Yet we do this with alcohol. We bar “young people from drinking through their teenage years” and then allow them to do so at twenty one without any “training.” Instead young adults learn how to drink responsibility from their friends in “clandestine locations.” Drinking is driven underground to dorm rooms and off campus apartments. In high school it is driven underground to golf courses at night and homes where parents are out of town.

The age restrictions makes it difficult for young adults to seek out help when a friend has consumed too much alcohol because they fear getting their friend or themselves in trouble. Lowering the drinking age to eighteen would allow parents to begin to prepare their children for responsible alcohol consumption because many young adults are still living at home at this age.

In the end, by educating our youth about responsible alcohol consumption, we—in turn—not only make our roads safer from drunken driving, but we make our society as a whole safer. When we instill responsible alcohol consumption, we decrease a whole slew of ills that result from irresponsible alcohol consumption.

Until we can have an open, honest, and educated debate about the merits of the drinking age, we can’t begin to tackle the social problems associated with excessive alcohol use. Until we remove the threats of punishment for those states that fail to set their drinking age at twenty one, we can not begin to have that debate.

For more information, please check out Choose Responsibility and The Amethyst Initiative.

Law enforcement officers: What do you think about this argument? What are your experiences with underage drinking and how might that come into play if the drinking age were to be lowered?

Meridith Spencer is an adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Bridgewater State College and Fisher College and an advocate for public policy that is “smart on crime.” She can be reached at or followed at .