Ineffective and expensive: Does a higher drinking age really make a difference?

When I was 11-years-old, my parents brought me with them to a convention in Mexico City, a wonderful town where the wine was delicious, the water was unpalatable and the drinking age was largely dependent on one's ability to hold a glass. In a desperate effort to ward off scurvy and intestinal parasites, I consumed massive quantities of fresh, wine-based sangria and the occasional tequila shot. Of course, a side effect of this was that I also managed to ward off sobriety with an amazing level of effectiveness.

Luckily, I wasn't a total newcomer to the wonders of alcohol consumption, so I was able to control myself fairly well, and managed to play off my occasional slurring as a side effect of altitude sickness. Years later, when I watched my college friends suffer through their first experiences with alcohol and hangovers, I became incredibly appreciative of my parents' determination to teach me about responsible drinking at a young age. This isn't to say that I never got drunk in college, or that I never acted like an idiot. However, I was always aware of the effects of alcohol on me, and usually was a responsible drinker.

When I was 18, I was struck by the apparent inconsistency of responsibility in my culture. I could be tried as an adult, could be enlisted to die in combat, and was trusted with the right to vote, yet I wasn't allowed to buy a beer at the local bar.

This contradiction still confuses me. Of course, supporters of the 21 and over drinking age point to the antics of underage drinkers as evidence that youngsters are too immature to drink legally. However, my college experience taught me that the unavailability of alcohol actually led to irresponsible drinking. After all, on the rare occasions when my friends and I had access to beer, binge drinking became the norm, not the exception. In fact, I remember when drinking lost a lot of its cachet for me -- it was the night after I turned 21, when I was able to buy beer any time I wanted.

Fans of the status quo also note that raising the drinking age results in fewer drunk driving fatalities. However, as statistics show, the period of reduced fatalities only lasts for a couple of years. Ultimately, drunk driving re-establishes its equilibrium; in some cases, fatalities actually rise with an increased drinking age. It's notable that the U.S., with the highest drinking age, is somewhere around the middle of the list on DUI-related fatalities; the top country, South Korea, has the third-highest drinking age in the world. In other words, it's pretty clear that other factors are at work here.

If we were to lower the drinking age, drunk driving fatalities would undoubtedly spike in the short term. However, with effective education, parental supervision, and a decent public transportation grid, it seems very possible that our drunk driving problems would decrease over time. Moreover, if we could cut down on the law enforcement expenditures associated with policing and punishing underage drinking, we could, perhaps, pay for the buses and car services that would make our streets safer!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Now that he can rely on a first-rate public transportation system, he's rediscovering the joy of drinking with his dinner!
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