Is 21 the right age for young people to start drinking alcohol? That debate has been going on for decades in the USA. Prior to 1984, some states varied between a drinking age set to 18 or 19 years old – ages that are standard all over the world. When Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that year, every state had to set their minimum drinking age to 21 or lose 10% of their federal highway funds.
Since that time the topic has come up again and again in newspapers and online, and a recent New York Times Op-Ed once again raised the question of how young is too young to drink. This time, the author of the article recommended the drinking age be dropped to 19.
On one hand, changing the legal age would result in less policing on the part of colleges and universities who have an influx of students coming straight from high school. On the other, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has cited stats showing how teen drinking can lead to alcohol abuse later on in life and teen drinkers are 7 times more likely to be involved in a crash. Because of that, the author of the Op-Ed recommended increasing the driving age from 16 and lowering the drinking age to 19. But is that the right thing to do?
All states have zero tolerance laws for underage drinking and driving, and if a teen registers even .01 on a breathalyzer they can lose their driver’s license for a period of time. Despite the stiff penalties for anyone who drinks and drives while underage, vehicle crashes, especially alcohol-related crashes, are still the leading cause of death for teens under the age of 21.
The age of 21 was set specifically to deter young people from underage drinking and underage drinking and driving. Is it working? Statistics show that there has been a 50% drop in underage drinking and driving since 1991, but there are still thousands of lives lost every year in alcohol-related crashes.
The debate about the drinking age will continue, but whatever is decided, the central focus should remain on preventing young people from getting behind the wheel after drinking.