DALLAS – Underage drinking. It’s not supposed to happen, but it does all the time — particularly among those 18 to 21 years old. And lately, there has been a growing chorus of people calling for the legal drinking age to be lowered to 18.
"It’s one of the stupidest laws in America," said Justin Schmid, 21, a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "You can be drafted by your country, go to war — yet you can’t have a beer. You can be tried as an adult — yet you can’t have a beer."
The list of rights and responsibilities that come with turning 18 doesn’t end there: You can also take your marriage vows, apply for a credit card — and relinquish your status as a minor.
"When you’re 18, you’re given all that responsibility," said Dallas-area high school student Caroline Lawson, 18. "You should also have the responsibility of drinking."
Other critics of the 21 drinking age in this country say the law is similar to the Prohibition movement — it was a good idea that just didn’t work. Some even believe it’s made drinking alcohol, especially abusively or excessively, more widespread among college students and others in the 18-to-21 category.
"In some ways, it perversely encourages drinking because it made it a rebellious thing to do," said Jonah Goldberg, an editor with National Review.
Opponents of the 21 drinking age here point to other countries in Europe and elsewhere that have lower or no drinking ages — but tougher drivers’ license laws, fewer alcohol-related deaths and less of a problem with binge drinking among young people.
The current drinking age in the U.S. became a nationwide phenomenon after a law was passed in 1984, during the Reagan administration, giving more federal highway funds to states that raised their legal drinking age to 21. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) assert that though the law doesn’t keep kids from downing alcoholic beverages, it has saved lives.
"If we lower the drinking age, we know there are going to be more young people who will die in alcohol-related crashes, and we don’t want more people to die," said Margaret Collins, a Dallas regional director of M.A.D.D.
Though the age when a teen can get behind the wheel varies from state to state, many have driving license ages of 16 or 17 — which is why officials and parents worry about making it legal to drink at 18.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that minimum drinking age laws have prevented more than 19,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities since 1975, when they first started keeping track. With stats like that, even some young people think 21 should remain the magic age.
"If it’s lowered to 18, more people will be purchasing beer and drinking beer while driving," said 16-year-old Dallas-area high school student J.D. Webb.