How Old is Old Enough?

Sharon Herzberger
College administrators struggle to succeed where prior efforts by parents, teachers, clergy, and coaches too often have  failed
September 21, 2008

I am one of the approximately 130 signatories of the Amethyst Initiative, all presidents of colleges and universities calling for a national conversation about underage drinking and the surrounding public policies and laws. For signing the initiative and calling for this conversation, we have been mischaracterized and denounced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving as people who won't hold young people accountable for underage drinking.

Moreover, the issue has been simplified as a debate over whether the drinking age should be 18 or 21. Unfortunately, the legal drinking age is only a small part of the issue.

I signed the Amethyst Initiative because I took seriously its call for a thorough review of the evidence about drinking by teens and young adults, and the byproducts of such behavior, such as traffic fatalities.

I do not know whether the current law continues to produce its full intended effects or has outlived its usefulness. But I do know – as a parent, community member and college president – that something isn't working. While the focus of recent media attention has been on college students, underage drinking is not just a problem that exists on our campuses.

Let me provide some facts. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 50 percent of high school seniors admitted to consuming alcohol in the month before being surveyed in 2005.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the statistics on younger teens. Nearly 25 percent of teenagers reported having their first alcoholic drink before age 13. More than 6 percent of 12-to 14-year-olds reported drinking in the last month and consuming an average of 13.6 drinks in that time frame. The number rose to 25 percent of 15-to 17-year olds, consuming an average of 29 drinks.

Colleges and universities across the United States are doing what they can to uphold the current law. We spend much time educating students about alcohol use and abuse and the consequences for violating both the law and college policy. In doing so, college administrators struggle to succeed where prior efforts by parents, teachers, clergy and coaches too often have failed. I lead a college, founded by Quakers who believed in the value of listening to diverse voices around us and who developed a mechanism to remind us to listen. At our college, we make it a point to pause for a moment of silence before we take up important matters for discussion. The silence reminds us to open our minds, prepare to listen to others, and look for common ground. A good practice to follow as we start this important national conversation.

Here is the bottom line: college presidents and MADD are working for similar outcomes. Neither advocates for youth drinking, or for drinking and driving at any age. But it has been a long time since we have had an honest, open, national conversation on this issue, one that acknowledges what is working and what is not. I'll bet that opening this discussion to multiple perspectives, having unfettered conversation, and truly listening to each other will result in some creative solutions. That's why I signed the Amethyst Initiative, and that's why I urge all of us to join in this call.

 Herzberger is president of Whittier College.

Valid Reasons Many Haven't Signed On
By James Lange

Research has repeatedly shown that lowering the drinking age increased problems, while raising it decreased problems.

About 130 college presidents and chancellors have signed on to support the Amethyst Initiative, a movement described as opening debate on the drinking age in the United States. As impressive as this sounds, it's humbling to consider that more than 6,700 presidents have not signed on. Why have so many chosen not to support this initiative?

Perhaps because most presidents recognize that the initiative takes the side of lowering the drinking age even though research has repeatedly demonstrated that doing so increases problems, while raising the age decreases problems.

In the early '70s, the argument that returning soldiers should be permitted a beer was very persuasive in some states. But by the end of the decade it was plainly clear that having some states with lower drinking ages was a disaster. First, within the low-age states traffic fatalities were up. Second, “bloody borders” emerged with young people in neighboring high-age states driving long distances to drink in low-age states; their return trips often ended tragically.

San Diego has its own “bloody border” with Mexico, so we know well the allure of a permissive jurisdiction. Several years ago, through breath-test surveys, we estimated that 300 drunken drivers emanate from the San Ysidro border crossing every weekend night. Sober drivers sharing the roads are justifiably worried.

In the '80s, Congress stepped in and put strings on highway funding to assure that all states had an age-21 law. As predicted, traffic fatalities started to decline. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that between 700 and 1,000 lives are saved every year because of age-21 laws. Injuries and teenage alcohol consumption also declined.

New Zealand recently became the “guinea pig” for lowering the drinking age; it has seen a 12 percent increase in crashes among those aged 18 to 20; 15-to 17-year-olds are crashing 14 percent more often. Young people usually get alcohol from social sources; lowering the legal age pushes social access down as well. Age-21 opponents offer no studies to support their hypothesis that lowering the drinking age would reduce deaths or injuries. Instead, they tend to focus on persistent problems associated with underage drinking.

It's a strange argument, tantamount to saying “because there are still speeders, speed limits should be abolished.” But our collective effort to abide by speed limit laws makes us safer even if each of us occasionally speed.

Underage drinking is similar; the laws reduce underage consumption and the toll it takes on all of us, even if sometimes our young people fail to abstain. Now it is true that age-21 laws changed behavior more among non-college young adults than for those college-enrolled. But there are 1,700 college-student deaths from alcohol-related incidents each year. About 78 percent of those are from vehicle crashes. There is no study, evidence or experience to make one believe lowering the drinking age would reduce that number; to the contrary, all the evidence available says it would increase it.

 Lange is San Diego State University's coordinator of alcohol and other anti-drug initiatives.