What is it about alcohol that makes some people lose all cognitive function? After being dressed up as the ethanol scarecrow that would fight farm overproduction, oil dependence and global warming — despite much evidence to the contrary — a vocal minority in several states including Wisconsin has once again turned to alcohol to solve their problems. Seemingly as a half-hearted recompense to young soldiers fighting a war in Iraq most Americans no longer support, some want to lower the drinking age to 18 — for military personnel only.
The most bizarre proposal, however, is a bill introduced in Minnesota that would allow 18-year-olds to drink in bars and restaurants, but not to buy liquor in stores. Presumably supporters are afraid of uninhibited binge drinking at teen house parties, but wasn’t the whole point of the federal government strong-arming states into raising the drinking age to 21 to stop drunken driving? Overwhelming evidence shows raising the drinking age lowers fatal automobile accidents, which is why Ronald Reagan, who made big government public enemy No. 1, signed a constitutionally questionable 1984 law that ties 10 percent of federal highway funds to setting the drinking age at 21. A 2003 review by the Center for Disease Control showed increasing the drinking age lowered fatal accidents by 16 percent, and the National Traffic Highway Administration estimates 900 lives each year have been saved by the switch. While that might not seem like a huge number, it’s hard to argue against a proven safety measure.
Students can moan and groan all they like, but proposals to change the drinking age are doomed to failure as long as one out of six of adult motorists nationwide report driving under the influence, as found by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. According to a 2007 Gallop poll, 77 percent of Americans oppose lowering the drinking age. Until it’s no longer a given that someone at a party will drive home drunk, the visceral images of deadly car accidents will continue to stir outrage, even as we decide it’s OK to drive intoxicated ourselves.
Wisconsin tops the list of drunken drivers, with more than a quarter of motorists saying they have driven while intoxicated in the past year. Of course, analysts immediately hit on the obvious cultural factors at play here, with both Nina J. Emerson, director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Paul Moberg, senior scientist at UW’s Population Health Institute, pointing to Wisconsin’s general acceptance of drinking being higher than many other states, according to an April 22 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.
But this ignores the fact that even in Utah, a state where a majority of residents belong to a religion that prohibits the consumption of alcohol, one in 10 people reported drinking and driving. Clearly, the problem is Americans love their cars as much they love their booze. The United Kingdom — with the same .08 blood-alcohol concentration legal limit as all 50 U.S. states?– had only 560 alcohol-related deaths in 2004 among its 60 million people, according to the British Medical Association. While the U.S. has five times the population, it had more than 20 times the alcohol-related deaths.
One oft-cited explanation for high U.S. traffic fatalities is that most international drivers first receive permits after they reach the legal drinking age. This makes little to no sense, however. The difference, if any, is usually less than a year, and traffic fatalities, sober and not, remain high for young people well after they turn 21, as any insurance or rental car agent will tell you. The only reason the drinking age won’t raise to 25 is the uproar would be even louder than if it were lowered to 18. It’s certainly true Europeans are less car-dependent, but the move to public transportation in this country has been slow and painful.
No, what Wisconsin needs is to correct its two-faced attitude toward drunken driving with harsh penalties even for first-time offenses — this is the only state where a first drunken driving incident is not criminal. While there are concerns ignition locks may not yet hold the answer, as a California Motor Vehicles Department study found they did not deter first-time offenders, we should look to innovations like these to keep alcohol-impaired drivers off the street. If we can do that, then maybe college students young and old can legally have a beer together.
Tim Williams ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in English.