I rejoiced to see the following article in CNN’s Health Care in America commentary: “Drinking age of 21 doesn’t work.” Finally a sensible statement about the issue. The 21-year-old drinking age has not been an effective solution to the problem of drunk driving, or alcohol-related deaths among young adults. Not only is it ineffective, it might actually pose more risks for young people.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by the Congress in 1984 and signed by the president. This Act raised the drinking age to 21. This was government’s reaction to the threatening and growing problem with drunken driving accidents and fatalities. However, this is probably the only preventative measure that the government took and it wasn’t nearly enough. Simply raising, or lowering the drinking age does not deal with the real problem. Young people need to be educated on the effects of alcohol (on behavior and driving), the importance of personal decisions and potential risks. Psychologists attest the truth of the old saying that ‘the forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest’. This is especially true for young people, who often need to resist control and authority to declare their autonomy. The author of the article makes an excellent point: “The law does not say drink responsibly or drink in moderation. It says don’t drink. To those affected by it, those who in the eyes of the law are, in every other aspect legal adults, it is Prohibition. And it is incomprehensible”(John M. McCardell, Jr). This can further aggravate the rebellious spirits. In addition, young Americans are aware that almost all other countries (except Indonesia, Mongolia and Palau) either have no minimum drinking age, or have a lower age limit (usually 18, but sometimes even 16).
It is no longer 1984. “Now, 25 years later, we are in a much different, and better, place. Thanks to the effective public advocacy of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, we are far more aware of the risks of drinking and driving. Automobiles are much safer. Seatbelts and airbags are mandatory. The “designated driver” is now a part of our vocabulary” (John M. McCardell, Jr).
Alcohol-related fatalities have declined in the past 25 years, in all age groups. Yet, the greatest number still involves people at age 21, followed by 22 and 23. “The problem today is different. The problem today is reckless, goal-oriented alcohol consumption that all too often takes place in clandestine locations, where enforcement has proven frustratingly difficult. Alcohol consumption among young adults is not taking place in public places or public view or in the presence of other adults who might help model responsible behavior. But we know it is taking place.” It is taking place in dorm rooms, off-campus apartments or remote fields (that involve driving). Drinking in such remote and isolated places hides greater risks than ordering drinks in a bar, where the bartender can refuse to serve at any point the individual appears intoxicated. If drinking is taking place in a public setting, there are many mediators and people who can react in case of emergency and call 911. This is not the case in locked and secret places where all of the drinkers can be underage and therefore be hesitant to call the police, because they don’t want to get in trouble. The CNN article explains that “of the 5,000 lives lost to alcohol each year by those under 21, more than 60% are lost OFF the roadways, according to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.”
The main problem today in not drunken driving. It is “clandestine binge drinking” “A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry revealed that, among college-age males, binge drinking is unchanged from its levels of 1979; that among non-college women it has increased by 20%; and that among college women it has increased by 40%” (John M. McCardell).
The bottom line is that the drinking age of 21 does not eliminate the problems or change the fact that young adults and teenagers ARE drinking, even if it is considered illegal. Then, we need to be thinking how we can create the most safe environment possible, so that young people can explore drinking with minimal risks.