As one of the best party schools in the nation, Penn State is no stranger to underage drinking. Yes, Penn State students may drink, on average, more than students attending other universities, but this phenomenon of drinking alcohol occurs at every college across America. Before 1984, many scientists, parents, and concerned adults worried that the drinking age of 18 was too low as the age group with the most common drunk drivers was 16-20 year olds. Once President Reagan virtually forced each state to increase the drinking age to 21 on July 17, 1984, the percentage of drivers involved in deadly car crashes decreased dramatically for 16-20 year-olds. In 1982, 61% of fatal car accidents involved people from this age group, yet by 1995, only 31% of these accidents involved people between the ages of 16 and 20 years old. Nevertheless, does this evidence prove that President Reagan made the correct decision in raising the drinking age to 21, or are there other factors that could indicate otherwise?
According to a petition trying to return the drinking age to 18, about 77% of countries around the world implement a drinking age of 18 or less. Additionally, the United States, even with the drinking age at 21, ranks third out of all countries in percentage of road accident fatalities involving alcohol, with 31%. According to Professor Ruth C. Engs of Indiana University, the decline in drunk driving incidents began in 1980, not 1984, and was due to numerous confounding variables other than the legal drinking age being raised to 21. For instance, awareness of driving inebriated has increased since 1980. Furthermore, driving in general has become less dangerous with safer automobiles, lower speed limits, increased use of seat belts and air bags, and increased use of taxis or Ubers to drive people under the influence rather than them driving themselves.
Besides third variables possibly discrediting the belief that the increase in the drinking age has helped reduce drunk driving incidents in America, there is evidence that this law may actually be hurting young adults more than helping them. According to John McCardell, the president of Middlebury College, students under 21 years old are attracted to risk, causing them to drink more often. Similarly, since they are technically not allowed to drink, many young adults will binge drink before going out in public. Although this is just an anecdote, without any real scientific method being applied, McCardell could be on to something. Among college students who drink, 32% of the students under 21 consider themselves heavy drinkers (over five drinks per week), compared to just 24% for students over 21. Scientists worry that heavy drinking in a short amount of time should be a larger concern for young adults as binge drinking can impair the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is still developing for young adults. The prefrontal cortex gives people the ability to judge consequences of their actions, have control of their urges, and experience abstract thought, which are all clearly essential for young adults to have.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons why MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other groups argued as ardently as they did to raise the drinking age to 21. Primarily, experiments performed in the late 1970s and early 1980s compared states with different drinking ages, but similar cultures to remove certain confounding variables. The evidence in favor of raising the drinking age was overwhelming. Furthermore, once states increased the drinking age to 21, alcohol-related driving accidents immediately dropped. Researchers have even taken into account third variables such as seat-belt use, safer car designs, and drinking rates in each region, yet the evidence still supports that the frequency of drunk driving incidents decreases for people between the ages of 21 and 30, and declines even more dramatically for people under 21 when the drinking age is raised to 21. According to James C. Fell, the drinking age should be 21 because young people get drunk twice as fast as adults, yet young people find it difficult to know when to stop. Fell continues to argue that the drinking age should remain 21 due to the harming of young adults’ developing brains, the reduction of car accidents, and the welfare of young adults in general. Lastly, according to Gabrielle Glaser, a study conducted from 1998-2005 showed that the number of people between the age of 18 and 24 who suffered alcohol-poisoning deaths almost tripled in this seven-year timespan.
Although many believe this argument has been settled years ago when the drinking age was changed to 21, the debate over changing the drinking age in America still persists to this day. Many studies have been carried out and there is plenty of evidence to support both sides. Raising the drinking age may help to prevent drunk driving, but may also cause teens to drink more (and binge drink more) because they are attracted to risk. Both of these conclusions, however, are soft endpoints. Still, common sense tells us that drunk driving obviously causes more fatalities from car accidents and that more binge drinking cannot be healthy for teens’ developing brain and for their overall safety. Experiments to decide which drinking age is better are practically impossible to conduct because scientists cannot make a large population of people drink or not drink based on their ages and see over the next few years which groups were in more fatal car accidents or suffered more brain impairments. An experiment like this would be immoral and not realistic. Nevertheless, observational studies can be very reliable if confounding variables can be accounted for. I am on the fence about whether the drinking age should be 18 or 21, but what struck me was that researchers have taken into account these third variables, and the rate of fatal car accidents still decreased drastically after the drinking age was raised to 21. I find this study very difficult to argue with the results. Therefore, I believe the drinking age should remain at 21 in America as lowering it to 18 would be too risky and could be harmful to many young adults, but with more research, I would be willing to change my mind.