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