Last week, President Barack Obama called for 30,000 additional troops to be deployed to Afghanistan over the next seven months. Given that many of these soldiers will be between 18 and 20 years of age, how is it that the drinking age is still 21?
According to the National Youth Rights Association, over 700 soldiers between the ages of 18 and 20 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 2003. Apparently, G.I. Joe is good enough to go to Iraq but not good enough to get into a bar. At 18, we are able to enter contracts, have an abortion and vote. We possess the maturity to sit on a jury trial, convict people of murder and sentence them to death. The law views those above the age of 18 as adults. But a beer still isn’t allowed.
The Federal Highway Act of 1984 requires states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 or receive 10 percent less federal highway funding. President Ronald Reagan thought alcohol-related fatalities on American highways would be reduced. In reality, his signature tied the hands of the states and eviscerated the country’s federalist system. Yes, states have the right to determine the legal drinking age. But let’s be honest — cash is king. State Budget planners would rather fatten the states’ coffers than let 18-year-old adults enjoy a Guinness.
Of course, the main argument for the law in the first place was that it would save lives by keeping drunk kids off the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates the increase in the minimum legal drinking age saved 23,733 lives in twenty years. But while a decreasing trend in fatalities is undeniable, the decline actually began in the early 1970s — nearly a decade before the passage of the 1984 Act. Society was already beginning to see drunk driving was unacceptable.
That was to due to the emergence of mandatory seatbelt laws and safer automobile standards — changes that contributed far more to the decrease in fatalities than the drinking law. The NHTSA contends the introduction of seatbelts and airbags alone saved 206,287 lives between 1975 and 2004. More people were spared by these safety technologies in 2002 and 2003 than during the entire lifespan of the drinking law.
When we take a step back, we can see the drinking policy is arbitrary. In most societies, the right to consume alcohol coincides with the age of adulthood, which is typically 18. In many cases, these societies also allow minors to drink under the supervision of adults. In the United Kingdom, a 5-year-old can drink at home and a 16-year-old at sit-down meals. In Belgium, the drinking age precedes the driving age. Informal, social and cultural drinking allows adolescents to become educated about alcohol. They learn that drinking in moderation is natural and normal.
The United States is another story.
The World Health Organization reports 18 to 20-year-old Americans drink to the point of intoxication in almost half of all drinking occasions. Only 10 percent of the same age group do this in Europe. Young adults in America aren’t just drinking, they’re bingeing. Binge drinking — consuming large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time — is found to be the fashion in which 90 percent of underage drinkers consume alcohol, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Studies show the reasoning and judgment portions of the brain don’t fully develop until the age of 25. Then why is the age for activities requiring maturity only 18 or 21? One word: education. When children begin to approach the driving age, usually 16, they need to take a state-mandated educational course and examination before they are permitted to drive. Parental supervision and instruction is a key component. When kids turn 16, we don’t simply throw them the keys and say, “Hit the road.” This would be ludicrous. Yet, magically, at the age of 21, we tell “real adults” to grab a bottle and go for it.
Is it fair that we hand G.I. Joe an assault rifle but stick him with a Minor in Possession if he holds a plastic red cup? Think of that word—”minor.” The age at which a child transitions from “minor” to “adult” in the United States is 18, but we call these adults “minors” in drinking situations. These minors are allowed to go to war and vote, but holding a red plastic cup can stop them from getting into law school or a top job. Nothing could be more hypocritical.
Brian Hurd is a Public Policy junior.