James C. Fell, Senior Program Director, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE)
Congress enacted the National Uniform Drinking Age 21 Act to protect the health and safety of the public. The experience of other countries that have tried lowering the drinking age show that the federal government’s decision was a wise one. In 1999, New Zealand lowered its drinking age from 20 to 18. The result, according to a recent study, was a dramatic increase in automobile crashes. The rate of traffic crashes and injuries to 18- and 19-year-old males increased 12 percent and increased 14 percent for males aged 15 to 17. For females, the effect was even greater—rates increased 51 percent for 18- to 19-year-olds and 24 percent for 15- to 17-year-olds.
If the minimum drinking age is lowered to 18 in the United States (U.S.), the result will be greater availability of alcohol not only to 18-20 year olds but also to those younger than 18. Studies in the U.S. have shown that lowering the drinking age to 18 also increases alcohol-related crashes for 15- to 17-year-olds.
Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA 21) laws save approximately 800-900 lives each year in reductions in traffic fatalities involving young drivers. Medical research shows that excessive drinking by youth aged 20 and younger may cause brain damage as well as reduce brain function. Early onset of drinking before age 21 increases the risk for future alcohol abuse, automobile crashes, and assaults, among other alcohol-related problems.
When the lives and wellbeing of so many young people are at stake it is appropriate for the federal government to step in and protect the public. The National Uniform Drinking Age 21 Act has been a balanced, effective, and popular tool in helping to combat the many problems associated with youth drinking. Repealing it would be a grave mistake.