Drive to raise minimum drinking age succeeds in several states

Momentum appears to be building in the drive to raise minimum drinking ages in several states across the country:

* Legislation to raise the New York State drinking age from 18 to 19 was given final approval by the state legislature May 26. Gov. Hugh L. Carey is expected to sign it shortly and the bill would become law 180 days after the signing.

* Connecticut raised its drinking age three weeks ago. The new law takes effect July 1.

* Maryland, also in the past few weeks, has passed legislation raising its minimum drinking age from 18 to 21.

* New Jersey, which raised its drinking age from 18 to 19 in January 1980, now is seriously considering raising it to 21.

When the New York legislation is finally signed into law, it will mean that all but five of 21 states which lowered their minimum drinking ages from 1970 to 1975 have once again raised them. One argument raised during that Vietnam war era was that a teen-ager old enough to be drafted was old enough to drink.

* New Jersey, which raised its drinking age from 18 to 19 in January 1980, now is seriously considering raising it to 21.

Of the five states that still have the 18-year-old minimum - Wisconsin, Louisiana, Hawaii, West Virginia, and Vermont - the latter came very close to raising it recently. Some highway safety experts say it is only a matter of time before this New England state joins its neighbors.

In 27 states, the minimum age for buying and drinking alcohol is 21 years.

William Haddon Jr., president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), contends that in the wake of New York's decision, ''a number of other states will follow suit.''

Supporters of the higher age limits say that national and state studies have documented that raising the drinking age substantially reduces teen-age traffic accidents by reducing the number of teen-agers who drink and drive.

Says Robert Lillis of the New York State Bureau of Alcohol and Highway Safety: ''Our projections, based on four studies, indicate that in raising the minimum drinking age to 19 in New York State, 18-year old 'drinking driver' crashes will be reduced 30 percent on an annual basis.''

Dr. Haddon of IIHS agrees.

''The evidence is extremely strong that alcohol used by teenagers is a major factor in crashes,'' he says.

A study of 14 states that have raised their minimum drinking age since 1976, completed late last year by the Washington, D.C.,-based IIHS, concluded that nearly 400 fewer teen-age drivers were involved in fatal nighttime road accidents each year.

Opponents of drives to raise the minimum age say that many teen-agers who do not use alcohol to excess are being, in effect, unfairly restricted by the behavior of the comparative few alcohol abusers.

In any case, as many as 60 percent of all crashes by drivers under 21 years of age are ''alcohol related,'' according to a study by the Institute for Highway Safety at the University of Michigan.

Some public school officials here say that in addition to reducing the number of traffic accidents and fatalities, raising the drinking age may also reduce the instances of teen-age alcoholism.

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