Tuesday, June 1, 2010

There They Go Again!

In a previous post, White Noise Syndrome, we have pointed out what was known for a long time:  drunk driving (and related deaths) peaks at age 21.  Now, yet another study has noticed this too, this time among college students.  Captain Obvious, if you will.  The researchers found that among 20 year old students, 20% admit to driving drunk, which rises modestly to 25% when they turn 21.  But the conclusions the authors drew about it were nothing short of strange.

The authors actually feel that the study validates keeping the drinking age at 21!  Their pretzel logic is that the increased availability of alcohol at 21 translates into more drunk driving than at 20, thus lowering the drinking age would be a bad idea.  But this argument is specious at best.  For example, the peak age for drunk driving is also 21 in countries with lower drinking ages such as Canada (18 or 19), Germany (16), Australia (18), and the UK (18), and this was true in the USA as well when the drinking age was 18 in most states.  That is, DUI increases between age 18 and 21 even in the absence of increased availability at 21.  Also, the aforementioned study also found that college freshmen drink more than upperclassmen, while drunk driving appears to increase with age--and even between 19 and 20 this increase occurs as well despite similar alcohol availability.  One possible reason for this paradox is that freshmen are less likely to have their own cars, as are 18 year olds in general, and more likely to live on campus.  Combine a 21 year old's greater likelihood of owning a car with the sudden increase in freedom to drink legally, and the study's results are hardly surprising.  It is the Law of Eristic Escalation in action.  One thing is for sure:  no one magically becomes able to handle alcohol upon turning 21 if they were not able to handle it before.  And with 1 in 5 college students overall admitting to driving drunk in the past year, it is quite obvious that if this is what they call success, we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

Perhaps our country's misguided attempt to keep 18-20 year olds from drinking at all, which has clearly failed, is not the best way to prepare young adults for the reality of drinking that 90% of them will experience.  All it is doing is delaying the inevitable at best, and making it more dangerous than it has to be at worst.  If the drinking age was 18, young adults could get the partying out of their system before many of them get their first cars, and often while still living on campus.  It would likely be done more safely than now, when it is done underground.  There would be no need to go to far-off locations (which often involve drinking and driving) when they could drink in their dorms, apartments, or walk to and from the local bar.  In fact, a 2005 study found that blood alcohol levels prior to driving among college students are higher from drinking at parties compared to all other locations, so more 18-20 year olds going to bars would probably mean fewer crashes, even among those who are foolish enough to drive.  Then when they are a few years older, it would get to be "old hat" and there would be less desire to mix booze and car keys. 

If anything, this study is a good argument for lowering the drinking age to 18, as well as cracking down harder on drunk driving.  We currently waste far too many resources trying to keep 18-20 year olds from drinking, that could be better spent on DUI enforcement.  But apparently the brains of people over 21 (especially over 25) are less capable of thinking in new ways.

As the late Ronald Reagan would say, "I can't help it, there you go again!"

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