In the U.S, 18 is considered the legal age of adulthood. Eighteen year-olds can vote, enter into legally binding contracts, marry, own property, serve on a jury, run for public office, and carry out a host of other responsibilities. In nearly all cultures, alcohol consumption is coincident with the legal age of adulthood. Legal Age 21 is out of step with this societal norm.
The law seeks to prohibit alcohol consumption by those under 21. It has failed to do so. Instead it has driven the consumption of alcohol underground and embedded dangerous drinking behaviors in individuals well before they can legally drink.
Nor is the problem primarily one of traffic safety. Of the 5,000 lives lost to alcohol each year by those under 21, more than 60% occur OFF our roadways.
Since most 18-20 year-olds continue to drink despite the dictates of the law, defenders of the status quo must be challenged. For 25 years the federal government has imposed a one-size-fits-all mandate on the states. A state wanting to experiment with practices that might be more successful faces the loss of 10% of its federal highway funds. Debate is effectively stifled.
History and an extensive body of research suggest that cultural attitudes toward alcohol use play a far more influential role than minimum age legislation or strict enforcement. Yet we do little to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol. We need a comprehensive, realistic approach to alcohol education. Moreover, a program of licensing, which has not been tried in the U.S. or abroad, could go far in changing the culture of toxic drinking.
It is time to waive the highway penalty. Let those states who so choose become “laboratories of progressivism.” Better, perhaps even best, practices will emerge.
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