Kendra Coburn | California Polytechnic State University
It’s a rite of passage for American college students, a threshold which separates the cherubic freshmen who wander campus in search of their classes from the stony-eyed seniors staring down the looming reality of graduation. It is simultaneously celebrated and demonized by the media. For the uninitiated, its allure blooms from its seemingly unobtainable nature, always hanging just out of reach on an ever-distant horizon. I am of course referring to the American federal minimum drinking age, which since 1984 has remained at 21 years of age.
Having recently celebrated my own twenty-first birthday, I found myself stopping to reflect on this milestone. Why is it that the federal government has seemingly arbitrarily chosen to place the minimum drinking age at 21, when 61% of the world’s countries have a drinking age of 18-19 years old? Many countries with similar or higher drinking ages than the United States, including Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Iraq, have cited religious or moral reasons for their standard. As a secular nation, does the U.S. federal government have a more objective reasoning for the drinking age?
The current federal drinking age is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Prevention Council, and the National Academy of Sciences, among other organizations. These organizations cite fewer motor vehicle crashes, fewer incidents of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning, and lowered rates of violence and suicide among young people as positive outcomes of the current drinking age . However, many of these statistics are juxtaposed against the drinking epidemic of the sixties and seventies, when most states had a drinking age of 18. During this time, very few drunk driving laws were in place and 60 percent of all traffic fatalities were alcohol-related. Today, all states have ignition interlock systems for convicted drunk drivers, 48 have increased penalties for drunk driving, 42 suspend a driver’s license after the first offense, and 32 have laws against open containers of alcohol . In addition, all states but Utah define drunk driving as driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 or higher— in Utah, the BAC is 0.05. Compare this to the 1970s, when a driver’s license could not be suspended for driving drunk, few to no financial penalties were incurred, and injuries or death caused by drunk driving were officially classified as “accidents” that no one person could be held responsible for .
Of course, no one supports drunk driving or alcohol abuse. The lowered rates of alcohol-related tragedies since the signing of the Minimum Drinking Age Act by President Reagan 1984 can be looked on as a point of pride for Americans. And yet, no European country has followed in the United States’ footsteps. One must wonder if there are any disadvantages to this higher drinking age that the federal government has failed to recognize.
As with any law, the passing of the Minimum Drinking Age Act has provoked pushback from several different groups at various times over the past thirty years. In 2007, John McCardell, a history professor at Middlebury, called the current drinking age “bad social policy and a terrible law” in an opinion piece for the New York Times. In his article, McCardell claims that the high American drinking age has fueled binge drinking culture among college students. The Center for Disease Control reports that annually 113 people between the ages of 15 and 24 die from alcohol poisoning. As the number of young people attending college has increased over the past two decades, this statistic has grown with it.
The “taboo culture” surrounding underage drinking has also led to the spreading of misinformation. Since 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has warned that some organizations conflagrate data surrounding alcohol-related vehicle accidents. According to a statement by the NHTSA, “…The term ‘alcohol-related’ does not indicate that a crash or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol.” If a passenger in the vehicle or even a pedestrian involved in the accident is determined to have a BAC of 0.01 or higher at the time of the accident, then the accident is classified as “alcohol-related.” This broad definition for the term has lead to organizations overestimating statistics regarding the pervasiveness of drunk driving in 2018.
For more than 30 years, the Federal Minimum Drinking Age Act has helped reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths among young people in America. At the time of its signing, America was in a time of social crisis. States could regulate alcohol as they deemed fit, which left alcohol largely unregulated across most of the country. But perhaps it is time to reconsider the law. The numerous regulations now in place will prevent us from slipping back into the wild west we were in the seventies. With Europe to serve as an example, the United States will have precedence to follow when returning their rights back to a new generation of young Americans.