Appealing to Vermont's independent streak, the former president of Middlebury College said Thursday the state is an ideal place to try returning the legal drinking age to 18.

John McCardell, who also founded the nonprofit Choose Responsibility, told lawmakers at a Statehouse hearing that a federal law that withholds highway funding from states that don't abide by a drinking age minimum of 21 has stifled debate on a worthy idea. But Mothers Against Drunk Driving argues that such a change would put thousands of lives in danger.

The 1984 enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act required states to raise the age to 21 or risk losing federal transportation money. South Dakota was the last state to comply, in 1988.

Vermont lawmakers are considering a pair of bills — one to push the drinking age to 18, the other to ask the state's congressional delegation to urge Congress to authorize waivers to states and not punish them by withholding funding.

Under the current law, states that don't maintain the 21-year-old minimum risk losing 10 percent of their annual federal transportation funding. In Vermont, that works out to about $17.5 million, according to John Zicconi, a spokesman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation

McCardell argues that the higher age encourages unsafe drinking by driving young people into locked dorm rooms, off-campus apartments and farm fields to do their consuming.

"We can either try to change the reality, which has been our attempt since 1984, and which, as is always the case in times of prohibition, has simply failed. Or we can, through enlightened public policy, create the safest possible environment for the reality," he told a legislative committee.

But Johns Hopkins professor David Jernigan told members of the House General Housing and Military Affairs committee that lowering the drinking age would result in young people experimenting with alcohol at an earlier age than they do now. Whatever problems the 21 minimum hasn't addressed should be handled with education, increased taxes on alcohol and more study, not by lowering the minimum, he said.

Scientists, he said, know more about the makeup of the adolescent brain than they did when the law was enacted, namely that the part of the brain that exercises judgment develops substantially later than the part that seeks out reward and risk.

Young people who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent as adults than those who wait until they're 21, he said.

Jernigan said research has showed the higher minimum has cut sharply drinking by teenagers and young adults but hasn't been as effective in curbing drinking by college students.

Lowering the drinking age? Not a good idea, he said.

"It's kind of like putting a fence around a swimming pool. People are still going to jump the fence. Does that mean it doesn't make sense to have a fence? I would argue no," Jernigan said.

McCardell said barring young people from drinking through their teenage years and then allowing them to do so at 21 is like not training a young person how to drive a car and then giving them the keys once they're old enough, without training.

State Rep. John Moran said he opposes a lower drinking age but believes the decision should be Vermont's, not Washington's.

"We don't want the federal government to tell the state of Vermont. This is an issue the state of Vermont should be discussing, as we've done today," said Moran, D-Wardsboro.