Lives lost or saved is at heart of debate over drinking age

Lives lost or saved is at heart of debate over drinking age

College presidents tend to be cerebral people, and so we have no problem with about 120 of them suggesting that there be a dialogue or a debate over whether the national drinking age should be reduced from 21 to 18.

Debate is a good thing.

But our gut tells us that giving teenagers legal access to alcohol isn’t the best way of addressing the problem that most concerns the university presidents, binge drinking and other forms of alcohol abuse.

Before Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, the drinking age varied from state to state. The act tied a state’s receipt of highway funds to its drinking-age law, and states fell into line quickly, adopting the 21-year limit.

The downside

That, the college presidents, say, has encouraged a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking” and has caused students to make ethical compromises when choosing to use fake IDs.

That some students have been making bad ethical choices for the last two decades is true enough. It could be argued that some students have made bad ethical choices for the last two centuries or last two millennia. And it is also true that a relatively small number of students have died due to binge drinking. Granted, even one student is too many, if that student happens to be your child.

At the same time, however, Students Against Drunken Driving, using National Highway Traffic Safety statistics, claim that as bad as the highway toll is today due to drunken drivers, hundreds more would die each year if the drinking age were lowered.

The college presidents have adopted the name Amethyst Initiative, after the Greek words for not intoxicated. Among those signing on are the presidents of The Ohio State University and Kenyon College in Ohio and Robert Morris, Chatham and Washington Jefferson in Western Pennsylvania. There is no question that these are thoughtful people.

And while such ethical issues as encouraging disrespect for the law that Amethyst has raised are interesting, the bottom line of this debate is one of lives saved or lost. And that is primarily a drunken driving issue.

It comes with the job

It is the job of the colleges to teach ethics, regardless of outside influences or even bad laws. It is — or at least it once was — the job of colleges to act in loco parentis — that is in place of a student’s parents. That isn’t easy, but we’re not sure how the duty of a college to function as a disciplinarian would be made any easier if the law were changed to allow students to drink legally at an earlier age.

Universities might face less civil liability when students within their control drank to excess legally, as opposed to illegally. But we certainly hope that none of Amethyst’s signers are looking to reduce their institutions’ obligation to exercise control over their students or to lessen their legal liability if they fail to do so.

Amethyst’s founding statement proclaims in bold letters that, “Twenty-one is not working.” To the extent that it is making it tougher on college administrators to combat alcohol abuse or inculcate ethical standards in their students, that might be true. But to the extent that it is saving the lives of potential drunken drivers and the lives of others whose paths those drivers might cross, “Twenty-one” might be working very well indeed.

Do families, colleges, social service agencies, police and courts have more to do to combat the reality and the effects of alcohol misuse and abuse? Yes. Is lowering the age for legal drinking by three years the answer? Not necessarily, probably not even likely. But let the debate begin.

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