Have the Underage Drinking Laws Made a Difference?
Thirty years ago President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) that required states to make 21 as the minimum age for purchasing or public possessing alcohol. As a result all 50 states now have 21 as the minimum drinking age. Occasionally, there are efforts made to reduce the drinking age to 18, arguing that teens and college students are still drinking, thus the law is a failure.
This episode and the one following will be a two-part examination of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Part one will examine the reason the law was passed and ask if has it been successful in light of that purpose. Part two will consider if the law has had any additional benefits and what can be done about the issue of underage drinking.
In this episode, I will be speaking with three different individuals about the initial reason for the law. The three people are:
- Bill Bronrott, currently the Deputy Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), played an important role in the battle against drunk driving and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.
- Candace Lightner, President of We Save Lives.org was the founder of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and a strong proponent for this law because of the lives it would save on our highways.
- Bill Morrison, a retired officer from Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. During his career, Bill saw a number of problems caused by underage drinking and developed a plan to combat it.
Drunk Driving: Starting A National Discussion
When looking at the reason for the NMDAA, it is important to remember in the early 1980s the fight against drunk driving was in its infancy. MADD was established in 1980, back at a time when someone being killed by a drunk driver was tragic, but it was just one of “those things.” Candace Lightner’s daughter Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driver and she was told by police that it was unlikely her daughter’s killer would see any jail time, let alone prison.
It was during this time that the battle to end drunk driving really started. One of the steps taken was by President Reagan to establish a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. The Commission’s purpose was to examine the issue of drunk driving and make appropriate recommendations to combat this deadly issue. The Commission issued a final report one year later with a number of recommendations. Passing national legislation to make the drinking age 21 was the Commission’s number one priority. Already being discussed because of “blood borders,” the recommendation by the Commission helped push the issue to the forefront.
In the early 80’s, blood borders were becoming all too common. Mr. Bronrott and Ms. Lightner both describe blood borders as a horrific consequence of teens driving across state borders where the drinking age was lower, become drunk, and then while trying to drive home, crash and die. Teens were literally dying to get their alcohol.
In fact, drunk driving was the number one cause of death for teens at this time. It was time to end these blood borders and save lives. Efforts had been made on a state-by-state level, however, that proved ineffectual; a national push was required.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act is Passed
However, like any legislation, getting the Commission’s recommendation passed was not a simple thing. There were competing interest on this issue and they were all speaking with senators and congressmen. Ms. Lightner met with them, talking about her daughter’s death and her desire to stop future deaths.
Armed with a map of the United States showing the blood borders and followed by the media, Ms. Lightner meet with a number of legislators, including then Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil. After sharing her story and why the minimum drinking age act was important, Speaker O’Neil told his legislative aide to: ‘get her what she wants.’
The law was passed within a year of the commission’s recommendations, and it is considered one of the fastest bills to successfully get through Congress.
At the signing President Reagan declared:
This problem is bigger than the individual States. It’s a grave national problem, and it touches all our lives. With the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power. I’m convinced that it will help persuade State legislators to act in the national interest to save our children’s lives, by raising the drinking age to 21 across the country.
Underage Drinking in Today’s Society
Of course, it is clear that underage drinking still happens. Teens are finding ways to obtain alcohol, some with fake identification, some at underground parties, and even others through their parents, either with a parent’s consent or just by taking the alcohol from the cabinet.
Underage drinking is definitely a problem, and parents can be both part of the problem and part of the solution. Some parents believe that if they let their teen drink at home, then they know the child is safe. It is the belief that if I as a parent did it while a teen, how can I not allow my child to do it. However, we now know more from the science, and things are different in today’s culture when compared to the way it was 20 and 30 years ago.
Officer Morrison noted that today’s teens are driving in their own car to parties where hard alcohol is being served, drinking a significant amount more alcohol and not worrying about others at the party. At underage drinking parties, he routinely saw teens at extreme BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) levels. He also observed an indifference with today’s teens that when someone is drunk, or maybe trying to drive home, or even being sexually assaulted they simply walk on by. It is considered to be inconvenient to respond or help out.
As noted by Officer Morrison, he has seen too many “good kids who made poor decisions” because of alcohol, and he has made too many death notifications where a teen has driven drunk and killed himself.
His strongest message is for the parents. As a parent, you must become more proactive; show you care about your children, but also hold your children responsible. Take the time to ask questions when your teen is going out and then wait up for them to come home and use all of your senses to learn what is happening. You need to remember that your children will try to push the envelope, and it is part of your job to set boundaries and keep your children safe.
One of the Most Effective Traffic Safety Laws on the Books
Efforts to reduce the minimum drinking age occasionally happen. Are there issues with underage drinking? Of course there are, but there exists other ways to address this issue. To learn about additional benefits of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and discover some of those ways to address underage drinking, check out Part Two of this discussion.
In the meantime, this law has saved tens of thousands of lives on our roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the minimum drinking age laws have saved 29,292 lives and some consider that number conservative. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was proposed as a traffic safety bill, and as a traffic safety law, it has lived up to its promise. 30 years later the number of lives saved on our roads is staggering, and it is still happening. Thousands of people are alive today because of this law.
- CDC – Fact Sheet – Underage Drinking
- NHTSA – Traffic Safety Facts 2012 Data – Young Drivers
- NIAAA – Underage Drinking
- NIH Fact Sheets – Underage Drinking
- National Minimum Drinking Age Act
- Party Patrols Helps Keep Lid on Alcohol
- Preventing and Dispersing Underage Drinking Parties
- President Reagan’s Remarks on Signing NMDAA
- Training Officers to Patrol Teenage Underage Drinking Parties
Bill Bronrott Talks about the Benefits of the NMDAA
Mike Brown is the Chief of the Impaired Driving and Occupant Protection Division at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a former Commissioner of the California Highway Patrol. In his current position, he is responsible for coordinating the United State’s policy and programs concerning impaired driving prevention activities and strategies to improve occupant protection. During this episode we discuss why December is an important month to remind everyone to not drink and drive and what is being done to prevent impaired driving across the country.
In many parts of the world, the month of December is a time to celebrate the holiday season; between Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve, it is a virtual cornucopia of festivities. For some people, these festivities mean celebrating with family and friends, which at times includes alcohol—and that is when it can get deadly.
December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month
On November 29th, President Obama declared December 2013 to be National Impaired Driving Prevention Month. NHTSA will be extremely active in December working with its partners everywhere, promoting the messages of ‘Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving’ and ‘Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.’
In the United States, 760 people lost their lives from impaired driving during December of 2011, with a total of 4,169 in the December months from 2007 to 2011. While impaired driving happens all year ‘round, the holiday season is a particularly dangerous time. Because of these devastating facts, law enforcement will be out in force cracking down on impaired drivers from December 17, 2013 through January 1, 2014.
Impaired Driving from Other Drugs
Alcohol is not the only drug that causes impaired driving. Other drugs are playing an increasingly deadly role. From research done by NHTSA, of the drivers tested for alcohol and other drugs, nearly 16% were positive for a drug other than alcohol. This is not to say that everyone was using an illegal drug. Prescription and over-the-counter medications were found as well. It is essential to remember that impaired driving can also occur from medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. That is why we must understand how any medication may impact the person taking it or interact with other medication being taken.
Make Plans Beforehand
Even one drink can impair someone’s judgment and increase the risk of getting arrested for impaired driving, or worse, killing someone. That is why it is important to make plans before heading out for the evening. Easy plans include:
- Designating a sober driver before the party begins
- Planning to call a taxi or using public transportation
- Making plans to stay where you are drinking
If hosting a party, stop serving alcohol as the evening wears on, and be responsible—friends don’t let friends drive after drinking.
One option that more communities are developing is free cab rides home. Called SoberRide in the Washington, DC area, the program is typically funded through sponsors and donations, and works with local cab companies to provide impaired adults (over the age of 21) cab rides home. In many locations the ride is free. WRAP (Washington Regional Alcohol Program) organizes the DC SoberRide program. To see a list of programs nationwide, click here.
Celebrate the Holiday Season Safely
It is the Holiday Season, a time to celebrate with family and friends. It is not a time to stop thinking. It is not a time to drink and drive. Take the time to plan ahead. Decide where to go with family or friends. Choose which celebrations to attend. Then make plans on how to get home safely. It is the Holiday Season—a time to make plans to be safe, for one and all.
What plans have you made for a safe holiday season? Let me know in the comments below.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- NHTSA Traffic Safety Marketing
- Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) – 2013 National Drug Control Strategy
- Sober Rides – National Listing
- Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP)
- 2011 Impaired Driving Numbers
- 2012 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview
- 2013 NHTSA Holiday Campaign Fact Sheet
- National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers (2007)
- Presidential Proclamation – December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month
- Highway to Safety Podcast—Episode 4: Drugged Driving
Joseph Nolan, Vice President for Vehicle Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), speaks with me about what you can do to buy a safer car. While the IIHS is involved in a wide range of highway safety activities, one of their best known is their ratings developed from car crash testing. Five types of crashes are done by the IIHS, with each scored separately:
- Moderate overlap front
- Small overlap front (less of the car is impacted than in the moderate overlap)
- Roof strength, and
- Head restraints.
IIHS Safety Rating for Cars
Once a car is put through each crash test, it receives an overall rating: Poor, Marginal, Acceptable or Good. A vehicle that receives a “Good” rating in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests is deemed a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS. If the car rates a “Good” in 4 out of 5 tests and “Acceptable” in the 5th, then it gets a Top Safety Pick + (Plus).
The IIHS started doing crash testing in the early 90s with one crash test, the moderate overlap front. At that time, many of the cars were rated either “Marginal” or “Poor.” Today, nearly all cars earn “Good” ratings in this crash test. As each new crash test has been added, car manufacturers have responded, designing safer cars in each attribute. Receiving the IIHS Top Safety Pick is now a valued recognition of the work done by car manufacturers and it is often included in their car advertising. To see the ratings of cars or trucks, go to www.IIHS.org. The Institute has a YouTube channel where you can watch many of the crashes. In the very near future, The Institute will also be examining and comparing a variety of the new crash avoidance technologies.
Safer Car App
Before my conversation with Mr. Nolan, I talk about the NHTSA 5-Star Safety Rating Program, which provides information about crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal Law. One star is the lowest rating, with five stars being the highest. To find the ratings for your car, check out the website: SaferCar.gov. There, you can enter the make, model, and year and get a summary of how your car did in the safety tests.
Also, to help keep in touch with the various ratings done by NHTSA while out shopping for a new car, you can download the SaferCar app. It is available on iTunes, with an Android version currently in development. This app allows you to check out the various car ratings from your iPhone or iPad, see if there have been any recalls, or file a complaint. The app even provides help in installing a child safety seat.
- 50th Anniversary of the IIHS – Crashing a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu