September 10, 2008
The argument against lowering the drinking age

I've mentioned the Amethyst Initiative and its efforts to lower the drinking age, which is something that I think has merit. Let me now present this op-ed by Robert Nash Parker, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside, which makes the case against. While I appreciate that Professor Parker builds an empirical argument and not an emotional one, I confess to some skepticism about his data. The root of my unease is right here:

On the Web site of Choose Responsibility, the umbrella organization that spearheaded the Amethyst Initiative, the arguments against the drinking age of 21 are particularly flawed. They contend that accidents and deaths dropped simply because the size of the teenage population went down. But they make an error that my undergraduate research-methods students are taught to avoid: They present raw numbers instead of the risk ratio, or the number of negative outcomes divided by the population at risk.

Between 1982 and 1991, when most states had raised the drinking age, the number of deaths from alcohol-related traffic crashes among youth went down, as did the population of young people. However, the rate of deaths dropped from 16.9 per 100,000 young people to 11.1 per 100,000, a drop of 34 percent; the population declined only 6.5 percent. Between 1993 and 2004, the population of young people increased, but the number of deaths didn't go up. In fact, the rate dropped from 7.77 deaths per 100,000 to 7.0 per 100,000. The assertion that deaths from alcohol-related crashes are shaped by the number of young people is simply wrong.

So what really has happened since the drinking age was raised? About 26,000 people who would have died when they were 18 to 20 years old are alive because fewer alcohol-related crashes occurred.

The main problem I have with this is that it assumes having a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 is the primary cause of this decline. It doesn't address other possible factors, such as changes in overall societal attitude. As was the case forty years ago with cigarettes, we have seen a large shift in public opinion about drinking and driving. Everybody knows what a "designated driver" is. Beer companies routinely run PSAs on TV and radio touting them. For holidays associated with drinking, like Saint Patrick's Day and New Year's Eve, free rides for anyone who wants them are offered by cabs and public buses in many cities, like Houston. The upshot of all this is that while the total number of traffic fatalities has remained fairly constant since 1982, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has declined by almost half. Needless to say, that cannot be explained by the higher MLDA alone.

So my question for Professor Parker would simply be this: How does the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities for the under-21 set compare to that for everyone else? I can believe the younger group has seen a steeper drop, and I'll readily concede that the higher MLDA is a part of that. But how much of that is really attributable to under-21s not having legal access to alcohol, and how much is the result of a quarter-century's worth of "if you drink, don't drive" being drilled into the national consciousness? Given that countries in which the MLDA was not raised have also seen (link via Grits) a drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities during this time, what accounts for that?

As I said, I think the argument in favor of lowering the MLDA is a meritorious one, but I could be persuaded otherwise. Professor Parker makes a decent start, but he still has work to do to have a chance with me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 10, 2008 to Society and cultcha
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