Lowering the Drinking Age

The Baltimore Sun reports that the presidents of the University of Maryland, Towson University, Washington College, Johns Hopkins, Goucher College and Washington College among other schools have signed off on a letter urging Congress to lower the drinking age to 18, saying we need to stop relearning the lessons of Prohibition.

We need the authors of “Freakanomics” to help us sort this out. There is no question that drunk driving deaths decreased when the age was increased from 18 to 21. But the 80s also saw a great increase in awareness at the same time we were raising the drinking age around the Country.

I saw a Happy Days episode – filmed in the 70s – where Potsie, Ritchie and Ralph were having a little flea market at Arnold’s and they were selling a driver’s license Ralph billed as “Buy this and drink and drive in all 50 states.” Can you imagine that today? Lou Dobbs’ head would explode.

(As luck would have it, the Baltimore Sun also reported today that yesterday morning a statute of Fonzie was unveiled in Milwaukee. Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) was on hand. When some crackerjack report asked Ms. Feeney for comment on the opinion of some that it harms Milwaukee’s cosmopolitan image to remind everyone that these mindless television shows were set in Milwaukee, she said: “Who are these people? Let’s get a loudspeaker and drive through the neighborhoods. Why wouldn’t they want to be part of the pop culture as well as the ballet, the opera and other arts?” Statistically, I find the occurrence of these four events improbable: (1) Some reporter taking a hard journalistic angle at this story and asking that question; (2) Ms. Feeney’s answer suggesting we get a loudspeaker and go through the neighborhoods, (3) the writer of the story and his/her editor publishing the quote, and (4) my taking up 175 words with this digression when talking about such an important issue. I think the odds are at least 10-1.)

The federal government forces states to keep their drinking age at 21 years via the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandates that states with a drinking age lower than 21 will lose 10 percent of their federal highway funding. No state can afford this loss.

I’m against lowering the drinking age. I don’t think that because there is a problem with underage drinking that “doing something” is the solution to the problem. Sometimes “doing something” can make a bad problem worse. But these university presidents are smart people. When a lot of smart people who are close to a situation take such a strong position, we would all be foolish not to hear them out.

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