Laura Dean-Mooney is the national president of Mothers
Against Drunk Driving ( www.madd.org).
AS THE MOTHER of a 17-year-old daughter going to college next fall,
I know that underage drinking can be a tough subject for parents and
school leaders. The solution to preventing college binge drinking starts
with keeping the minimum legal drinking age at 21.
This law saves lives by reducing the number of fatal drunk-driving
crashes caused by young drivers. Since states started passing the age- 21
law—well before 1984—more than 25,000 lives have been saved, according to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, more than 50 peer-reviewed studies show
that the age- 21 law saves lives.
Parents support the age- 21 law. According to an August 2008 Nationwide Insurance poll, 72
percent of adults think lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to kids
and nearly half think it would increase binge drinking among teenagers. The younger youths
are when they drink, the more likely it is that they will become dependent on alcohol and drive
drunk later in life. I know the problems that high school leaders face on this issue, and it does
not make sense to make this problem worse by increasing teenagers’ access to alcohol.
MADD and our health, safety and law-enforcement partners would like to see the same
energy spent on the so-called 21 debate channeled into solutions that we know work to
reduce college binge drinking. These solutions include changing the environment in and
around campuses to discourage crazy binge-drinking games and limiting access to alcohol
by enforcing the age- 21 law.
These solutions have been suggested for years, yet some universities and colleges have
failed to implement them. This failure has resulted in misinformation, continued lack of
enforcement and such tragic headlines as “COLLEGE STUDENT KILLED DUE TO ALCOHOL
POISONING” or “COLLEGE STUDENT KILLED DUE TO DRINKING AND DRIVING CRASH” or
“COLLEGE STUDENT KILLED DUE TO DRINKING AND FALLING FROM A DORM WINDOW.”
We welcome discussion with college and university presidents who want to encourage responsible drinking behavior among their students. But lowering the age- 21 law is nonnegotiable. C
from experts in the field:
THE VAST MAJORITY of young adults, whether in college or not, consume alcohol before they turn 21. Yet the United States is one of only
four countries with a legal drinking age as old as 21.
For 18- to 20-year-olds, the drinking age has effectively banished
alcohol from public places and public view, but has done little to reduce excessive drinking.
If you were to design the ideal location for binge drinking, it would be a locked dorm room,
an off-campus apartment, a farmer’s field—all places conducive to clandestine behavior. And
that is exactly where binge drinking is taking place, in the most risky of environments.
Paradoxically, the more successful a college is in enforcing the law—carding underage
drinkers, limiting quantities, posting campus security—the greater the likelihood that alcohol
consumption will move out of campus sight and often beyond campus boundaries, effectively placing that behavior out of reach of campus authority.
The result? More than 5,000 lives are lost to alcohol each year by those under 21—more
than 60 percent of these off the highways. To these grim numbers must be added the assaults,
date rapes, emergency room visits, all of which are increasing despite the 21 legal limit.
Instead of treating young adults like criminals, what if we instead encouraged responsible
drinking by acknowledging students’ adulthood and the reality of the presence of alcohol in
their lives? What if we developed an education program that went beyond temperance lectures and scare tactics to help young adults make responsible decisions about alcohol? And
then, what if, once they completed this curriculum, completed high school and demonstrated
that they had never violated the alcohol laws in their state of residence, they were to receive
a license that would allow them, so long as they continued to observe the law, to consume
alcohol like the adults the law says, in every other respect, they are? Might this create both an
incentive not to drink before turning 18 and a much safer, public and manageable environment for alcohol consumption for those who reach the age of majority? C
John M. McCardell Jr., former president of Middlebury
College, is the founder of Choose Responsibility, formed to promote informed public debate about the effects of the 21-year-
old legal drinking age ( www.chooseresponsibility.org).
NOVEMBER DEBATE UPDATE:
Should photo identification be
required for voting?
Percentage reflects votes
received by November 12, 2008.
OCTOBER DEBATE RESULTS:
Should there be a
national speed limit?
YES: 22% NO: 78%
Percentage reflects votes
received by October 31, 2008.
Opinions expressed are those of the
individuals or organizations represented
and are presented to foster discussion.
Costco and The Costco Connection take
no position on any Debate topic.