Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Let's Finish The Job Already

In a previous post, we at Twenty-One Debunked noted how successful Australia has been at reducing the perennial scourge of drunk driving casualties since the early 1980s.  In fact, they have been much more successful than the USA has been despite (or more likely, because of) Australia keeping the drinking age at 18 combined with tougher DUI laws and enforcement.  This is true even though the Land Down Under is an avid car culture where binge drinking is known to be quite the art form (and more so than the USA), so that really says something!

Canada, with a drinking age of 18 or 19 depending on the province, has also seen more success overall than the USA, though not quite as much as Australia has.  Like the USA, they had been slacking a bit from the mid-1990s through the 2000s, though recently some provinces like Alberta and British Columbia have toughened up and resumed their previous decades of progress.  And in the past decade the USA has stepped up enforcement a bit as well.  But truly there is much more room for improvement in the USA, which out of all "developed" nations has generally seen the least amount of overall progress in reducing traffic deaths despite (or perhaps because of) raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s.

So what does Twenty-One Debunked recommend that we do to "finish the job", aside from lowering the drinking age to 18 and raising the alcohol excise taxes?  Well, for starters, we could:
  • Lower the BAC limit to 0.05, with graduated penalties that rise dramatically with BAC.
  • Increase the use and frequency of sobriety checkpoints and/or roving patrols to catch drunk drivers.
  • Impose administrative sanctions, such as license suspensions and vehicle impoundment, including for drivers of with BAC of 0.05-0.08.  (British Columbia and Alberta are good models to follow in that regard)
  • Require alcohol ignition interlocks for all impaired driving offenders (and make it a standard feature on all new vehicles as well).
Additionally, we could also adopt what I like to call the "fish in a barrel" method of catching drunk drivers before they get on the road.  Park a police car outside each bar, observe who is about to drive under the influence, and catch them as soon as they put the key in the ignition.  Gotcha!  Alternatively, one can intercept them before they even enter their vehicles, and offer them a ride home instead.  Either way, that will scare many potential drunk drivers straight, and bars would thus be under economic pressure to offer free "safe rider" programs in order to maintain the same volume of customers patronizing them without fear of getting a DUI.

Another idea, loosely borrowed from UCLA researcher Mark Kleiman, would be the "blacklist".  To wit, if someone is convicted of drunk driving, drunk violence, drunk vandalism, or repeated drunk and disorderly conduct, they would be banned from purchasing alcohol or entering a bar for at least a year or until 21, whichever is longer.  Subsequent offenses would be two or more years.  Ditto for anyone who buys or furnishes alcohol to anyone under 18 (other than one's own child) or any adult who has been blacklisted thusly.  Driver licenses or ID cards to blacklisted individuals would read "do not serve alcohol under penalty of law".  Additionally, we can allow problem drinkers without convictions to opt-in voluntarily to be blacklisted as well for up to five years, much like they have for casino gambling in some states.  We could call such a program "86 Me" or something along those lines, and that looks very promising indeed.

It's 2016, and time to finish the job already.  The question is, do our leaders have the intestinal fortitude to do so?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Australia Gets Right

One thing our movement has a habit of doing is comparing the USA to Europe for the purpose of ascertaining what the effects of a lower drinking age would be like.  While there is some truth to such a comparison, the pro-21 side routinely calls us out on the important differences between here and there.  For example, they have much better public transportation than we do, they are more urbanized, driving licenses are much more difficult to obtain, gas prices are much higher, and thus they are much, much less of a car culture that we are.  All of which would dramatically affect traffic fatalities and skew any comparisons.  As a result, Twenty-One Debunked typically prefers to make comparisons to Canada instead, which is also a car culture that is the most similar to the USA.  And they have seen a similar or faster drop in traffic deaths than the USA despite NOT raising the drinking age to 21, and their traffic death rates have been consistently lower than the USA.  But there is also another major car culture as well with a drinking age of 18--Australia.

In the Land Down Under, they have in fact seen a faster drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths than the USA and even Canada since 1982 despite keeping the drinking age at 18.  Not only that, a recent study in Australia found essentially no link between being able to drink legally and motor vehicle accidents of any type, at least not in the state that was being studied, New South Wales.  Using a regression discontinuity design similar to the sort that pro-21 researchers have been doing lately, they found no discontinuous jump in such deaths or injuries in young people upon turning 18.  This stands in stark contrast to the USA, in which various pro-21 researchers have found a significant jump in alcohol-related deaths and injuries among young Americans upon turning 21, an increase that in many cases lingers well beyond one's 21st birthday.

Of course, such a phenomenon is not unique to the USA, as a jump in alcohol-related deaths and injuries has also been observed in Canada at their own respective MLDA (18 or 19, depending on the province), albeit of a shorter duration than in the USA and limited primarily to males who participate in "extreme"
binge drinking.  It would seem that a powder-keg effect is unfortunately an almost inevitable consequence of the very concept of a drinking age, regardless of what it is.  So what does Australia do right that seems to defuse the powder keg?

Most importantly, Australia has tougher DUI laws, and tougher and more frequent enforcement of such laws.  For example, not only are penalties tougher, but the BAC limit is 0.05 (as opposed to 0.08 in the USA) and they have random breath testing (RBT), which is unconstitutional in both the USA and Canada.  Though one could argue that nowadays the USA effectively practices a form of "de-facto RBT" via a combination of "no-refusal" laws (i.e. the police often have a judge on speed-dial to issue a telewarrant to compel those who refuse to be tested) and often pull people over for trivial reasons and use that as an excuse to test drivers, and the initial effectiveness of RBT in Australia seems to decay over time to the level of effectiveness demonstrated by American-style sobriety checkpoints and/or roving patrols.  Additionally, driver's licenses are harder to get and easier to lose over there than in the USA, and the road test there is significantly more difficult as well.  Alcohol excise taxes are also higher in Australia as well.  But the biggest and most salient difference is the seriousness with which they take the issue of drunk driving.  You really do NOT want to get busted for DUI in the Land Down Under!

Of course, the picture down under is not entirely rosy.  Australia's drinking culture is quite extreme even by American, Canadian, and British standards (though tame by New Zealand standards), and binge drinking is quite the art form over there.  Indeed, even the aforementioned study found that while traffic deaths and injuries do not increase discontinuously at 18 when they become legal to drink, there is still a discontinuous increase in hospital visits and admissions for alcohol poisoning and injuries from assault at 18.  But the fact that, even in a country with a more Anglo-Celtic, drink-to-get-drunk culture than the USA, it is nonetheless possible to break the link between drinking and drunk driving casualties, really speaks volumes indeed.

In other words, lowering the drinking age in the USA should really not be something to fear.  But we also need to get tougher on drunk driving if we wish to continue the progress of decades past.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Latest Regression Discontinuity Studies Only Confirm Powder Keg Theory

This year, pro-21 researchers Kitt Carpenter and Carlos Dobkin are at it again.  As you may recall, we at Twenty-One Debunked have critiqued much of their past work, particularly their use of the "regression discontinuity" approach.  The researchers found a significant jump in statistical death rates, arrests, and stuff like that immediately after young people turn 21 compared with before.  And their latest study seems to be more of the same, this time looking at non-fatal injuries as measured by both ER visits and inpatient hospital admissions.

Oddly, these researchers actually (and without even a hint of irony) claim that these studies show that the 21 drinking age is effective in saving lives and reducing alcohol-related harm!  But we at Twenty-One Debunked see it rather differently--if anything, it shows that there is nothing at all magical about turning 21 that makes one invulnerable to the deleterious effects of excessive alcohol consumption.  And setting the drinking age at such an arbitrarily high age only sets a powder keg (pun intended) that goes off when young people reach that age.  The higher the drinking age, the larger the powder keg, it seems.  And it also shows that the Law of Eristic Escalation (i.e. imposition of order leads to escalation of chaos) is correct, as well as Fenderson's Amendment (the tighter the order is maintained, the longer it takes for the chaos to escalate, but the more it does when it does).  Hardly a ringing endorsement for the 21 drinking age!

Of course, Carpenter and Dobkin also find evidence of a jump in both drinking and alcohol-related deaths among Canadians upon reaching their MLDA (18 or 19, depending on the province), particularly among males, and the increase in mortality seems to be due to a sudden jump in "extreme" binge drinking.  It seems there is always a risk of increased alcohol-related harm in the short-run after suddenly turning legal, regardless of age.  But as much other research shows, there is good reason to believe that such an effect is worse and longer-lasting when the the legal drinking age is higher rather than lower.  And furthermore, a recent study in Australia (where the drinking age is 18 and DUI laws are tougher) found essentially no link between being able to drink legally and motor vehicle accidents of any type in the state of New South Wales.  Food for thought indeed.

On the plus side, one should also note that another recent study using a regression-discontinuity approach found that being able to drink legally reduced the consumption and initiation of hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, meth, etc.) among young people.  That blows yet another hole in the junk science that is the "gateway" theory.

Friday, September 2, 2016

What About 19?

One question that our movement frequently has to field is whether lowering the drinking age to 19 is a better idea than lowering it to 18.  And our answer is always the same:  unless 19 also happens be the age of majority, there is no good reason why the drinking age should be any higher than 18, period.  And in 47 states and DC (Alabama (19), Nebraska (19), Mississippi (21) are the odd-ones-out), the age of majority is 18.  And if you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

Yes, but....won't that result in 18 year olds buying alcohol for their younger friends?  Surely 19 would be better in that regard since most 19 year olds are out of high school, right?   Wrong.  The argument is technically true, but it nonetheless misses the point by a long shot.  Last I checked, people under 18 are still getting their hands on alcohol even with a drinking age of 21, and banning 18 year olds from drinking solely to prevent them from supplying their younger friends is inherently unjust.  Besides, there are other ways to discourage 18 year olds from supplying their younger friends with booze or throwing high-school keggers:
  • We could put a cap on how much alcohol an 18-20 year old can purchase in one transaction or day.  For example, no kegs or cases, and no more than an 18 pack of beer, 1 gallon of wine, or one fifth of liquor per transaction, and no more than one transaction in any 24 hour period.
  • We could ban 18 year olds from purchasing alcohol during the school day, and ban any high school student from showing up to school under the influence of alcohol.
  • We could toughen the penalties for buying or furnishing alcohol to people under 18.
  • We could ban off-premise sales to 18 year olds unless either a) a person 19 or older is present with them, or b) they show a college or military ID, or a high school diploma or GED. 
And none of these things would really create an undue burden on anyone, while still preserving most if not all of the purported benefits of setting the drinking age at 19 or higher compared with 18.  As for that last item on the list, we had thought of that one very recently.  It seems that back in 1981, Virginia had experimented with raising only the off-premise (i.e. store) purchase age to 19 while leaving it at 18 for on-premise (i.e. bar and restaurant) sales.  But they barely even gave it a chance, as two years later in 1983, they raised it to 19 for on-premise sales as well, and then to 21 in 1985.  Granted, setting the off-premise purchase age higher than the on-premise age may have created a perverse incentive to drive after drinking, especially in rural areas.  But giving 18 year olds the option to buy alcohol off-premise when accompanied by someone over 19 would remove that perverse incentive, while still reducing the supposed "trickle-down" effect since a person under 18 would still have to find someone 19 or older to make the transaction possible.

In other words, there is no good reason to set the drinking age any higher than 18.  Period.