Argument: 21 drinking-age may not be responsible for lower driving deaths

Issue Report: Lowering US drinking age from 21 to 18


Cynthia Martens. “Lower drinking age could aid terror war”. The Badger Herald, The University of Wisconsin-Madison. 29 Mar. 2005 – According to the World Almanac, 15-20 year olds make up roughly 8 percent of the U.S. population. Young drivers — especially young male drivers — account for a much higher share of injury and fatal car crashes than they do of the general population. Still, their share of alcohol-related crashes, while greater than their share of the population, is significantly smaller than their total share of accidents. Proponents of the current drinking age would cite this as proof the drinking age works. This assumes the only reason for a lower share of alcohol-related accidents is the 21-year age limit reducing access to alcohol. Yet zero-tolerance policies and the penalty of loss of a driver’s license may motivate many young drivers to be more responsible behind the wheel. Other possible explanations include teenage curfews and parental pressure.

John J. Miller. “The Case Against 21. Lower the drinking age.” April 19, 2007 – The zero-tolerance laws in place already discourage teenagers from driving drunk. These laws should remain tough. With sufficiently strict laws against drunk driving — maybe even especially strict laws for young drivers — I doubt drunk driving would be anymore of a problem than it already is, in the long run.

What annoys McCardell most is the recurring claim that the raised drinking age has saved more than 21,000 lives. “That’s talking point #1 for modern temperance organizations, but they can’t point to any data that show a cause and effect,” he says.

As his report reveals, alcohol-related driving fatalities have fallen sharply since 1982, when a presidential commission on drunk driving urged states to raise their drinking ages to 21. That year, there were 1.64 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel; in 2001, there were 0.63 deaths. That’s a drop of 62 percent.

This is an important achievement. Yet the drinking age probably played only a small role. The dramatic increase in seat-belt use almost certainly accounts for most of the improvement. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that the proper use of seatbelts reduces the odds of death for front-seat passengers involved in a car crashes by 45 percent. In 1984, when President Reagan linked federal highway funds to the 21-year drinking age, about 14 percent of motorists used seatbelts. By 2004, this figure had shot up to 80 percent. Also during this period, life-saving air bags became a standard feature on cars.

What’s more, alcohol-related fatalities were beginning to decline before the movement for a raised drinking age got off the ground, thanks to a cultural shift. “As a society, we’ve become a lot more aware of the problem of drunk driving,” says McCardell. “When I was in school, nobody used the term ‘designated driver.’” Demographic forces helped out, too: In the 1980s, following the Baby Boom, the population of young people actually shrank. Fewer young drivers means fewer high-risk drivers, and so even if attitudes about seat belts and drunk driving hadn’t changed, there almost certainly would have been a reduction in traffic deaths anyway.