Monday, October 17, 2005

Lower the drinking age. Raise the driving age.

I enjoy beer and wine. In fact, I enjoy them on a regular basis and believe that, in moderation, they are beverages that are healthy for both the body and spirit.

That's why articles like this one on college beer drinking games in The New York Times make me cringe. Inevitably, they spark a knee-jerk reaction to alcohol that does little to address the heart of the problem. It troubles me that each time the media takes a stab at this story, there is no mention of the impact of keeping the age for legal consumption of alcohol at 21. I guess that's why I've decided to take it on here.

The laws enacted to restrict alcohol consumption only serve to promote the abuse of it. The 21-year-old drinking age that swept through state after state during the Reagan years — with threats to withhold federal highway money speeding it along — lies at the heart of the binge drinking that plagues college campuses. Instead of learning how to consume alcohol in a social setting such as, gasp, a bar, it pushes it into dorm rooms, student apartments and, even worse, cars. There, underage drinkers consume excessively in order to fuel an entire evening. A healthy pace is not part of the equation.

Of course, no matter where our society sets the legal drinking age, young people enjoying their first taste of independence will be prone to overindulgence. But contrast the drinking on American college campuses with those of Western Europe. There, alcohol consumption is considered a part of a life well-lived. Young people become accustomed to the serving of wine or beer with meals. They learn that a bar is not merely a place to get drunk but a spot to share opinions in a convivial atmosphere.

I went to school in a Canadian province where the legal drinking age is 18. Yes, there were many instances when I was not an especially prudent consumer of my favorite malted beverage. At the same time, I attended functions with faculty where alcohol was served — and did not get hammered. I enjoyed an afternoon beer in the campus bar while debating some issue that seemed dreadfullly important at the time — this was college, of course — without getting hammered. The simple fact is that when alcohol isn't demonized, the thirst for it is not quite so strong.

Realizing that no legislator is going to stand up and propose raising the driving age, I offer a compromise worthy of Clay and Calhoun. Lower the drinking age and, at the same time, raise the driving age. Here in Michigan, there are youngsters just shy of their fifteenth birthday who have a beginner's driving permit. To me, a 14-year-old in the driver's seat of Dad's Escalade is a far scarier proposition than a 20-year-old on a bar stool with a margarita.

Let's take the cars away from kids and give the right to enjoy a beer in a licensed, regulated establishment back to the adults. And rather than try to legislate good behavior, let's pursue education that promotes responsiblity.

A legal driving age of 18 instead of 16. A legal drinking age of 18 instead of 21.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I've also worked on advertising for brewers for years. Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about motivation, let me say that I believe my thoughts on this subject would actually reduce mass consumption and promote balanced, responsible drinking.)



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