Many claim that raising the drinking age to 21 in the U.S. has improved safety. They say it’s reduced alcohol-related traffic deaths among young people. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that thousands of lives have been saved by the age 21 law. Unfortunately the law hasn’t saved any lives at all. Instead, it has shifted alcohol-related to young people above the minimum drinking age. That is, it has been simply been redistributing alcohol-related deaths from traffic crashes!
Researchers at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University long ago found that raising the drinking age to 21 simply shifted traffic deaths. That is, it shifted them from those aged 18 to 20 to those aged 21 to 24. Their exhaustive research was federally-funded. They found that drinking experience, not drinking age, is the most important factor.1
Another comprehensive study then examined the effects of different traffic safety measures. These included speed limits, seat belt laws, alcohol policies, etc. It did so over time on different age groups.
The researchers found raising the drinking age was associated with reduced of 5% among 18-20 year-olds. However, it was at the expense of an 8% increase among 21-23 year-olds.
They reported higher drinking age and “policies which keep teens away from alcohol may to some degree simply shift the attendant mortality risks to young adulthood.” Additionally, “the magnitude of the mortality redistribution” is “quite large.” 2
Dr. Mike A. Males of the University of California made an important observation. “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.
A Traditional Idea
This is not a strange or radical idea. Many groups around the world teach their children how to drink in moderation as pre-schoolers. And they’ve done it for thousands of years. They include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Jews, Portuguese and many others.
What’s a strange and radical idea is imposing a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. That’s the highest national MLDA in the world.
To believe that MLDA of 21 is effective is to ignore the facts and live in a fantasy world.
Resources for Redistributing Alcohol-Related Deaths in Traffic Crashes
Drinking and Driving. A Crash Course. eVideo. NY: Films Media, 2015.
Goodman, K. and Simon, K. Safe Road Home. Stop Your Teen from Drinking & Driving. NY: Sterling, 2005.
Kiesbye, S. Drunk Driving. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011.
Males, M. Wrong Way for Teen Drivers. Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 2008.
Mendralla, V. and Grosshandler, J. Drinking and Driving, Now What? NY: Rosen, 2012. Juv.
This is based on 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. He’s also Senior Researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.