Ideas have a short half-life in our fast-moving society and sometimes they are old news before a commentary can get from pen to publisher. While exciting and newsworthy events are taking place — a presidential election, hurricanes in the Gulf, the start of football season — the ever-present and compelling drama of alcohol use and abuse in America lingers on and should continue to demand our attention.
Recently, a large group of university presidents united to suggest lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 in an attempt to deal with the assault of binge drinking and unnecessary deaths on college campuses throughout our nation. While drinking is without question a dire and serious problem, I don’t think lowering the legal age is the solution. In fact, I believe that it is quite misguided and, to some degree, self-serving.
This “solution” actually confuses two separate problems and, while mitigating one, may exacerbate another. Drinking by minors on the large university campuses and in the respective towns in which they are located does not necessarily include driving.
Alcohol-related deaths on college campuses are just as likely to be attributed to alcohol poisoning or other incidents related to alcohol abuse, involving rape, assault, and “accidental” deaths occurring quite often outside of a car. (Although I can tell you that statistics on car-related vs. non-car related alcohol-influenced deaths among minors are impossible to find.)
University presidents supporting the so-called “Amethyst Initiative” to lower the drinking age to 18 are, in essence, attempting to solve non-driving alcohol issues that occur on their campuses, while ignoring the well-documented dangers of drinking and driving by minors throughout the country and off the college campuses.
Legalizing the problem doesn’t make it go away. Cynically, I wonder if it might reduce their responsibility and their liability as they see the problem slipping out of their control.
Unfortunately, the only way to know if lowering the drinking age would make kids safer is to try it. That’s a pretty risky proposal.
Beyond the problems of binge-drinking frat parties at Ohio State or Duke is the most serious issue of the dangers of drinking and driving by young people throughout the country. I can tell you that there are no statistics that say reducing the drinking age would make kids safer in cars.
Criminalizing a segment of society for doing what is well-practiced and part of our culture may not be the only way to handle the issue. And (here is where I’m going to lose some of you who have been agreeing with me so far) lowering the BAC to 0.08 and increasing the number of DWI checkpoints while feigning surprise at the number of people arrested is a ruse meant to increase awareness but also to pretend that the issue is controllable through the legal system.
The issue is cultural and societal, and legal solutions attempting to change cultural norms often fail. Remember Prohibition? On a past weekend night in early summer of this year, 853 cars were stopped at DWI checkpoints in Albany county and 16 people were charged with DWI. That is a grand arrest total of 1.8 percent; concerning to some, but hardly a crime wave. On a more recent, much talked about Thursday evening, a dragnet in Albany county lasting four hours produced 32 arrests.
Only the naive would be shocked or surprised at the “magnitude” of those numbers. My guess is a single DWI checkpoint outside of the Travers race in Saratoga Springs, or after an Ozfest, or any given wedding could probably get 32 people every hour easily. But that might get the wrong people (well, except for the Ozzies). It might be inconvenient to arrest everybody. So the unlucky ones get to be criminals, and the rest of those in the evening crowd get to wipe their brows and thank their lucky stars that their number wasn’t drawn this time.
Arrest by lottery
There is something disconcerting about this “arrest by lottery” approach to the problem and the abandonment of the right of probable cause when good citizens have to go through police checkpoints where, as in the case above, 98.2 percent did nothing wrong.
The truth is, awareness has increased. Alcohol-related highway deaths by some accounts have decreased by almost 50 percent since 1982 but remain in the tens of thousands with — and this is significant — 65 percent in the under-25 age group.
People have become more careful and sensible in their pursuit of evening entertainment. But more can be done. Lowering the drinking age isn’t part of the solution. If legalizing the drinking age to 18 should be compared to serving in the military at age 18, then let’s raise the minimum military age to 21.
Perhaps we could then decrease deaths, not only on the highways, but on the battlefields as well.
The approach to the problem is best served not by accommodating the problem or criminalizing poor judgment, but by defining the problem more accurately and designing solutions that work within the parameters of acceptable and common social behavior.
More public transportation, heightening awareness, enlightened laws that can distinguish between social activity and recidivistic anti-social behavior are part of a better solution.
Getting a start
Here’s a simple beginning: The technology exists to help control the problem. If breathalyzers can be put in cars to prevent them from running, and if police officers have portable BAC measuring devices to detect overindulgence, then why not make them available to everyone? Make the devices simple enough to put in everyone’s hands, put dozens of them in every bar and restaurant, hand them out when issuing driver’s licenses, and make them available to every host and hostess who want to prevent their guests from driving home impaired.
Most people don’t want to break the law. These devices could help them know when they are.
Anthony Frank lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.
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