The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

August 20, 2008

18 reasons

At last, reality has made a tardy appearance into the debate about the role of drinking in our society.

A group of college presidents has signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, a public statement that “the 21-year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses. ”

Why? As the presidents’ statement notes, “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.”

The presidents call upon elected officials to “support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age,” including “whether the 10% highway fund ‘incentive’ encourages or inhibits that debate,” while seeking “new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.”

The 21-year-old drinking age requirement — tied to federal government blackmail that takes 10 percent of highway funds away from states that don’t have a 21-year-old drinking age — is ineffective in reducing underage drinking, in colleges and in the places where it was supposed to inhibit underage drinking, high schools. When college freshmen arrive in their dorm, either they have no experience with alcohol if they’ve been following the law, or they’re used to breaking the law. Away from home for an extended period for the first time in their adult lives, in most cases, with no parents telling them not to drink, they start drinking, sometimes to excess and sometimes with tragic results.

Advocates of the 21-year-old drinking age claim that 1,000 lives have been saved each year by the higher drinking age, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Amethyst Initiative quotes Choose Responsibility as noting that more than 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds “die each year of alcohol-related causes other than traffic accidents," and that the 21-year-old drinking age has not prevented deaths, but delayed them — “every claim of an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old life ‘saved’ as a result of Legal Age 21 is offset by the number of 21-, 22-, or 23-year-old lives lost.” If that is true, then the 21-year-old drinking age is an abysmal failure for that reason alone. Choose Responsibility also points out that “Four factors have combined powerfully (and dramatically more than Legal Age 21) to the decline of driving fatalities associated with alcohol: safer cars, higher awareness by drivers of all ages, greater utilization of a ‘designated driver,’ and more vigorous law enforcement.”

What’s more, as Choose Responsibility notes, “Legal Age 21 has created an environment of excess consumption and goal-oriented drinking. While fewer individuals aged 18–20 are drinking, those who choose to drink are doing so at dangerous and alarming rates. … Brain development is complete around age 25; therefore, 21 is not a magic number. What puts individuals at greater cognitive risk is binge drinking, whose rates have only climbed.”

To no one’s surprise, suggesting that the drinking age may be too high is tantamount to mandating drinking until you’re comatose to such anti-alcohol types as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The PR NewsWire headline for MADD’s news release: “Some University Presidents Shirk Responsibility to Protect Students from Dangers of Underage Drinking.”

“It’s very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses,” said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD, which, according to the Associated Press, is “even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.”

That’s an interesting statement (not to mention a neat bit of character assassination), given that every one of the 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, who drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005, according to an Associated Press study, died in a state with a drinking age of 21. Actually, it’s very clear the 21-year-old drinking age is not enforceable at any campus except where there’s almost as many security personnel as students. So much for the “informed and dispassionate debate.”

Then again, there is no such thing as an “informed and dispassionate debate” when it comes to the issue of alcohol generally and drunk driving specifically. (See the aforementioned PR Newswire headline.) We as a society lose all proportion whenever the subject of drunk driving comes up, as the show of police force called “Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest” under way until Sept. 1 with $50 million of your tax dollars, demonstrates. (On Sunday I noticed within a one-mile stretch of U.S. 18–151 that goes through a village of 1,100 people west of Madison, one Wisconsin State Patrol squad car, one county sheriff car, and one village police car. None appeared to be doing anything other than sitting on the side of the road trolling for potential drunk drivers, around 6 p.m. On Tuesday, two state troopers were similarly trolling for drunk drivers on Calumet Street in Appleton at 3 p.m.)

Driving under the influence of alcohol means your senses are partially impaired from your ability to give full attention to driving. That also occurs with drivers on some kinds of medication, drivers who notice their car interior is too warm or too cold, cellphones, car audio systems, car navigation systems, cars that flash instrument panel warning lights, passengers, other cars, and drivers who are thinking about anything else besides driving. Some impairments are more serious than others, obviously, but to assert that, as a Colorado MADD chapter president, Penny Wagner, said, “Once you’ve consumed your first drink, you’ve lost that ability to make a sound judgment,” calls into serious question the credibility of the organization sponsoring that point of view. (Then again, MADD supports an absolute sobriety standard for all drivers.)

How serious is drunk driving? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the number of drinking drivers involved in fatal crashes totals 0.127 percent of all drivers. Note the word “drinking,” not “drunk,” because the NHTSA counts every driver with any blood alcohol content in that percentage.
(If you drink one beer and then are killed in a car crash in which the other driver was sober, then you died in an alcohol-related crash, according to the federal and state DOTs.) That is how the state Department of Transportation can propagandize that “alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin killed 337 people and injured 5,552” without saying how many of the dead and injured were in fact legally or factually intoxicated. (And about that last point, “legally or factually intoxicated,” few people notice that a legal intoxication level creates a crime based on a state of being, rather than a state of doing, or, put another way, a state of mind instead of an action — in this case, bad driving.)

Like other laws created to make politicians look good or constituents feel good without producing actual results, the 21-year-old drinking age serves to encourage disrespect for the law. I’m still waiting for someone to give an actual logical rationale countering the presidents’ observation about how people are legally considered adults at 18 except when it comes to alcohol use. (Recall the words of Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”) It is also another example of how laws can serve to deter personal responsibility. The 21-year-old drinking age is also an example of power triumphing over reason — why can’t you drink before you’re 21? Because we said so!

MADD and its allies will not tell you this, but the vast majority of people who used alcohol before their state said they legally could are not drunks and in fact use alcohol responsibly after they reach the legal drinking age. If that were not the case, the drunk driving and drunk-driving death rates would be an order of magnitude higher than they are. (Then again, MADD is well known for playing fast and loose with the facts, liberally using junk science, or generating all kinds of inaccuracies.)

To date, in Wisconsin only the president of Ripon College has signed on to the initiative. Northeast Wisconsin’s other college presidents and chancellors should too. So should the proponents of the 21-year-old drinking age agree to engage in “an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age.” Don’t hold your breath.

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