An Interview with John McCardell about Lowering the Drinking Age to 18

Radley Balko over at Reason has an interview with John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College, who initiated the Amethyst Initiative -- a "collective of college presidents urging a public discussion about the drinking age." Here is what he had to say:

Q: Do you favor setting the federal drinking age at 18 or removing federal involvement altogether?

A: I would defer to the Constitution, which gives the federal government no authority to set a national federal drinking age at all. It's clearly supposed to be left to the states. So the first thing we need to do is cut out the 10 percent penalty [in federal highway funds to states that refuse to adopt the minimum age of 21], then let the states make their own policies.

Q: Supporters of the law say it has led to a reduction in highway fatalities.

A: If you look at the graphs for about 30 seconds, you might draw that conclusion. There has been a decline in traffic fatalities. But it began in 1982, two years before the law changed. It has basically been flat or inching upward for the last decade.

More interestingly, the decline has come in every age group, not just people between 18 and 21. And if you look at Canada, where the minimum drinking age is 18 or 19 [depending on the province], the trend in highway fatalities has almost exactly paralleled ours. It's far more likely that the reduction in deaths is due to seat belt use, airbags, and safer cars.

Read the whole thing.

I have talked about lowering the drinking age before here and here. In general, I am also highly dubious of the statistics that suggest that the 21 drinking age lowered traffic fatalities. It primarily succeeded in moving them to another age group and criminalizing an activity that the majority of 18 year-olds participate in. So I am excited by the possibility of repealing an ineffective and unnecessarily punitive law.

And as to reading the Constitution, well, Amen to that.


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I agree with you on the simplistic interpretation of the statistics. Perhaps they should look at what happened when the legal drinking age in Australia was lowered from 21 to 18 in the early 1970s.

This change coincided with the beginning of a steep decline in the number of people being killed on the roads. Road deaths per 100,000 population have dropped from 30.4 in 1970 to 8 in 2005. Prior to this the numbers had been rising steadily (apart from a couple of glitches coinciding with the 1930s depression and WW2 - perhaps fuel costs/rationing/young men off dying from other causes?) QED - lowering the drinking age improves road safety!

Of course, the early 1970s also saw the introduction of seatbelts, uniform speed limits, blood alcohol limits, better road & vehicle engineering, ...

Data available at

If the politicians were really serious about stopping under-21s being killed in car crashes, they could simply raise the legal driving age to 21. Of course they might have to do something about the voting age at the same time, if they wanted to have any chance of keeping their jobs. ;-)

So at 18 the kids are mature enough to vote, drive a car, get married, recruit themselves to army and kill people, but not mature enough to drink? Next you will be claiming that abstinence is the best way to prevent spread of VDs.

Here in Europe, beer and wine are OK at 18, and strong drinks at 20.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 20 Jan 2009 #permalink

Lassi: The drinking ages seem to differ across Europe, in Germany for example you are allowed beer and wine at 16, while everthing that's been distilled isn't allowed until 18. AFAIK, there isn't a penalty for drinking underage, but for selling (or giving) alcohol to those who aren't allowed to drink it.

I think that the constitutional argument is sound, but then again, conditioning federal government aid on a specific drinking age is also constitutional. On what basis, other than his personal preference, would Balko simply "cut out" the condition in the federal program? It's constitutional and it's supported by the people, through their representatives.

As for the drinking age itself, I wouldn't have a problem with it, so long as they imposed a mandatory license suspension (along with any other penalty) for those between 18-21, for first time DUI, of five years or to age 25, which ever is longer, and for second offense, to age 30, coupled with stiff fines and mandatory imprisonment for driving with a suspended license under these provisions (And provisions preventing plea bargaining for lesser sentences.) If these kids are mature enough to drink responsibly, let them put their driving future on the line to prove it.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

Whoops, I misread. I though it was Balko who made the statement, not McCardell... My bad.

By Grant Canyon (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

Grant Canyon,
I agree with you that DUI should result in mandatory license suspension, but this should not be limited to 18-21 year-olds. If a 40-year-old is not mature enough to drink responsibly, then they should have the same penalties as younger people, or possibly harsher penalties because if they can't drink responsibly at that age, it's less likely that they every will.

In my opinion it's just stupid to let people get their license first and than let them experience with alcohol.

We can start here with beer with 16. Every drink is than legal with 18, earliest possible driving alone is with 18.

As far as i know: In the US kids can drive with like 16, try alcohol for the first time AND drive becouse they don't know how to handle the poison.