Liquor and teen-age drivers are deadly companions. This is the conclusion of not only highway safety officials but state lawmakers, many of whom less than a decade ago wilted under the "old enough to fight, old enough to drink" argument of the Vietnam war era.
All but six of the 20 states that between 1970 and 1975 dropped their minimum drinking age to 18 have since reversed their decisions -- at least partially.
The rate of increase in the number of states raising the minimum drinking age has slowed somewhat -- only Texas and virginia have done so this year. But new momentum may be building.
A new Maine statute, which takes effect Sept. 18, mandates 48 hours in jail, a $350 fine, and motor vehicle license suspension for not less than 90 days for persons convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol.
The measure, considered by highway safety officials to be the toughest of its kind in the nation, applies to motorists of all ages, including those under 21 who tend to be involved in a higher percentage of liquor-related accidents, according to Patricia Kassebaum of the National Clearing House for Alcohol Information.
The momentum has been fueled by a growing pile of studies by public and private agencies. These indicate liquor-related traffic fatalities involving drivers under 21 have increased, often substantially, in states that lowered their drinking ages.
Studies by R. L. Douglas, a researcher at the Institute for highway Safety Research at the University of michigan conclude that "forty-five to 60 percent of all crashes by drivers under 21 are alcohol-related."
While it is difficult to project the precise number of traffic deaths that could be averted if liquor were taken out of the hands of 18-, 19-and 20 -year-olds, those close to the scene generally agree it would be considerable.
A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) concludes that about 380 fewer young drivers were involved in fata nighttime road accidents each year in the 14 states that have raised their drinking age in the past five years.
The study compared nine states with a higher drinking age with neighboring states that have lowered the age. The study showed a 28 percent overall drop in crashes by motorists newly excluded from legal drinking.
Dr. William Haddon Jr., president of the Washington-based highway safety research group, says that comparisons involved only crashes after dark because this is the period when drunk driving by young people is most prevalent.
The estimates, based on total fatal crashes rather than number of persons killed, indicate reductions ranging from 6 percent in Massachusetts to 75 percent in neighboring New Hampshire. Both states increased their drinking age from 18 to 20 in 1979.
In Illinois, 18- and 19-year-olds could legally drink beer and wine but not other alcoholic beverages between 1973 and 1979. The insurance institute projects that drunk-driving-related fatal crashes involving this age group could have been reduced by 23 percent had the drinking age been higher.
In 1980, the state raised the drinking age -- and the results may be even more positive than the IIHS projections. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, there were 27 crashes involving 19- and 20-year olds who had been drinking, compared with 46 in 1979 -- a 41 percent drop.
Further support for raising the drinking age has come from the University of Michigan study. Its findings show that between 1962 and 1975, liquor-related traffic accidents involving 18- to 20-year-old drivers increased 35 percent in that state. By contrast, after the minimum drinking age returned to 21 in 1979, crashes involving this age group declined 31 percent.
Last November Michigan voters registered their support of the higher drinking age.They rejected by a 3-to-2 margin, a referendum to allow 19- and 20-year-olds to drink.
Besides Illinois and Michigan, only North Dakota, among the 16 states that have raised the drinking age for some or all kinds of liquor, has gone to 21 as the state's minimum drinking age since 1976.
Four states -- all of them in New England -- hiked the age from 18 to 20: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Rhode Island made the change July 1.
Eight other states -- Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, montana, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Texas -- which in the early 1970s dropped the drinking age from 21 to 18, have raised it to 19.
Similarly, a new Virginia law raises to 19 the minimum age for buying beer and wine for off-premises consumption. Eighteen-year-olds, however, still can be served these beverages in bars and restaurants. Also unchanged is the long-standing statute that limits other forms of liquor to persons 21 or older.
Lowering the drinking age is blamed for increased vandalism and problems at school functions. Principals, teachers, and others support higher drinking ages. They point out that many 18-year-olds are still in high school and provide liquor to younger classmates. They cite instances of increased alcoholism among youngsters, which they attribute in part to the lowered drinking age.
Since the current trend toward boosting the drinking age began less than five years ago, no state has lowered its drinking age despite several efforts in that direction.