Graduation and tragedy go together like Romeo and Juliet – only the modern story usually involves cars. Every year, American communities bury promising youths cut down on the cusp of adulthood by the deadly mix of alcohol and automobiles. Sadly, this is not news.
It’s so not news that all fifty states have had a legal drinking age of 21 since the late 1980s. In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandated that 10 percent of federal highway transportation funds be withheld from states that failed to comply. Within four years, all of them did.
Anyone who has raised kids knows the anxiety of sending them out into the world in cars, especially in the teenage years, when enthusiasm trumps experience. Parents often organize supervised, alcohol-free graduation parties. Sometimes other parents offer an alternative approach.
And that is news, because you usually find out about it after said parents have been arrested. It’s usually someone with a large house and backyard, and the first rule is that all attendees hand their car keys to their hosts. No one is allowed to leave until the next morning.
It is illegal both to furnish alcohol to minors and to provide them a place to drink. But when you think about it, what could be more responsible? Alcohol-free events are great, but some kids are going to try booze. And why wouldn’t they, given that alcohol advertising is all around them, and beer companies sponsor their favorite sports teams and musicians?
My own early experiences with alcohol were punctuated with puking and next-day regrets. I am far from alone in this. We recognize that inexperienced drivers can’t immediately be turned loose on the road, and thus driver’s ed has become something of a national institution. But why is there no “drinker’s ed?” Is it realistic to expect young people to abstain until they are 21, and then drink responsibly thereafter?
It seems to me that a supervised gathering, from which no one is allowed to drive away, provides an opportunity for kids to imbibe without putting themselves and others in danger. Absent such opportunities, kids will do their drinking away from parental supervision, often in cars, too frequently with tragic results.
I do not mean to ignore the very real problem of alcoholism or the daily carnage of drunk driving. Alcohol and driving don’t mix – period. I have heard friends argue that the .08 percent blood-alcohol level is too strict, that a small person can exceed the legal limit after a couple of drinks. I’ve heard others assert that their reaction time after two beers is still better than that of a sober 75-year-old. I have heard still others complain that organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving killed the local bar scene by pushing for stricter laws with lower limits.
I buy none of these arguments. Bars should be located in walkable downtown communities, not out on lonely country roads. If you weigh 100 pounds and want to have a drink or two with dinner, don’t drive afterwards. And most drivers think highly of their own driving skills, which the false bravado of an alcohol buzz does nothing to discourage.
America is a drinking country with a driving problem. Both drinking and driving are so deeply imbedded in our daily lives and our popular culture that it’s impossible to entirely avoid either. If you choose not to own a car, you’re still going to need a ride from time to time. And if you choose not to drink, you’re more likely to be drafted by your friends as their designated driver.
Certainly, excess alcohol consumption ought to be discouraged, at any age. I applaud programs that help alcoholics abstain. But we tried prohibition once, and it didn’t work. It doesn’t work any better with today’s 18-to-20 year olds, who are adults in every other area of the law.
It’s commendable to combat drunk driving through legislation. But the laws tend to focus more on the drinking than the driving. Some people ought not to drink, but some people ought not to drive, either. Anyone with more than three drunk driving tickets deserves permanent license revocation. Those who continue to drive after that should spend long terms in jail – for the protection of everyone they might otherwise encounter on the road.
And here’s an even more sensible suggestion: lower the drinking age and raise the driving age. Make 18 the age of majority for both high-risk activities. High school kids don’t need to drive, and college students don’t deserve to be treated like children. A more mature approach to the twin problems of drinking and driving might result in a safer society for all of us.