Safety and the drinking age

An important new study confirms what most safety experts have long known but in some cases have not been able to get across to obdurate state legislatures. Namely, that if a state raises its legal drinking age, there is a sharp reduction in auto accidents involving young people.

The University of Michigan study comes at a propitious moment since many state assemblies are now meeting or will be doing so in the winter months ahead. If there was ever any doubt about the correlation between drinking age and auto accidents, the Michigan and Maine findings should be more than enough evidence to spur the dozen or more states that allow purchase of liquor by persons under 21 to boost their drinking ages.

In 1978 Michigan restored its legal drinking age to 21 from 18. Since then, accidents involving injury or death for young people dropped 28 percent. Single-car crashes fell by some 22 percent. In Maine, which raised its drinking age to 20 years from 18 in 1979, there was a 17 percent drop in noninjury, liquor-related accidents.

Lowering the drinking age was a faulty decision from the beginning, when it was linked to ratification of the 26th amendment in 1971 granting 18-year-olds the right to vote. But even then safety experts were arguing that young drivers would not have the road experience necessary to handle both liquor and the wheel at the same time, especially under difficult driving conditions. That of course, is no less true for older drivers. The important point is that the issue was always one of safety - and not one of denying ''rights'' granted to society at large, as argued by some young people seeking lower drinking ages.

Since alcohol-related motor accidents are said to be the leading cause of serious injury for young people, the conclusion seems inescapable. States should take note.

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