Alcohol-Related Traffic Fatalities: Redistributing Death

It is frequently argued that raising the drinking age to 21 in the U.S. has reduced alcohol-related auto fatalities among young people. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that thousands of lives have been saved by the minimum drinking age of 21. Unfortunately the law hasn't saved any lives at all. Instead, it has shifted alcohol-related fatalities to young people above the minimum drinking age.

Researchers at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University found that raising the drinking age to 21 simply shifted fatalities from those aged 18 to 20 to those aged 21 to 24. They concluded, on the basis of their exhaustive federally-funded study, that drinking experience, not drinking age, is the most important factor. 1

A new and comprehensive study examined the effects of different traffic safety measures (speed limits, discretionary and mandatory seat belt laws, alcohol policies, etc.) over time on a variety of age groups. The researchers found that raising the drinking age was associated with fatality reductions of 5% among 18-20 year-olds at the expense of an 8% increase among 21-23 year-olds. Higher drinking age and "policies which keep teens away from alcohol may to some degree simply shift the attendant mortality risks to young adulthood," they observed. Additionally, "the magnitude of the mortality redistribution" is "quite large." 2

As Dr. Mike A. Males of the University of California observes, "The bottom line is that raising the drinking age to 21 did not improve a young person's odds of avoiding fatal alcohol mishap before age 25." 3

The popular idea that delaying the consumption of alcohol by young people appears highly questionable. As researchers at the Center of Alcohol Studies found, drinking experience reduces traffic fatalities.

This suggests that young people should learn to drink in moderation before learning to drive. Inexperienced drinking combined with inexperienced driving appears to be a highly dangerous mix.

This is not a strange or radical idea. Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Jews, Portuguese and many others around the world teach their children how to drink in moderation as pre-schoolers. What's a strange and radical idea is imposing a minimum drinking age of 21. Of all the nations of the entire world, the the only country to maintain this extreme social experiment. The other countries that have tried it (Ukrainia and South Korea) have concluded that it doesn't work and have abandoned it.

To believe that the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 is effective is to ignore the facts and live in a fantasy world.


Acknowledgement: This is based on a personal communication from Dr. Mike Males and includes materials taken directly from it with the author's permission. However, he does not necessarily agree with all material presented or conclusions drawn. Prof. Males is a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Senior Researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. His homepage is and he can be contacted at [email protected]


  • 1. Asch, P., and Levy, D. Does the minimum drinking age affect traffic fatalities? Journal of Policy Analysis & Management, 1987, 6, 180-192.
  • 2. Dee, T., and Evans, W. Behavioral policies and teen traffic safety. American Economic Journal, 2001, 91(2), 91-96.
  • 3. Males, M.A. Personal communication (November, 2002); also see Males, M.A. Does "adolescent" mean "abstain from everything"? Youth Today, 2001 (September).

filed under: Drinking and Driving