If a House-approved proposal were to be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President, it would boost the national effort to control drunken driving. The measure would press states to raise their legal drinking age to 21; those that did not would lose 15 percent of their federal highway funds for two years.
The Senate should approve the bill and the President should sign it. The bill also ought to be strengthened so that it continues the penalty of lost highway funds until states raise their drinking age; the House-approved measure would penalize them for only two years. In any case, at this juncture the measure's future is in doubt.
In recent years Americans have begun to insist that legal authorities crack down on drunk driving. Several states have enacted tough laws against it and have begun stronger enforcement of them, both on the highways and in the courts. Citizen groups have been formed, often by people who have had a relative killed by a drunk driver. Since the late 1960s, 26 states have raised their minimum drinking age by at least one year.
Teen-agers and 20-year-olds aren't the only Americans who drive while drunk, of course. But they are involved in a disproportionately high percentage of accidents with fatalities in which alcohol is a factor - some 20 percent, according to the sponsor of the measure in the US House. One research analyst says the rate of liquor-related fatalities for teen-agers is three times that of people between 25 and 44. Postponing the age at which young people are permitted to drink should not be considered a panacea, but it is likely to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities related to alcohol.
Drunken drivers of any age are a menace, not only to themselves, but also to others on the highway. Although many young people are mature in outlook, large numbers of others are not. This lack of maturity leads some to use bad judgment by driving while intoxicated; in another two or three years they would be more likely to use better judgment.
Three states - Vermont, Louisiana, and Hawaii - have the lowest legal drinking age, 18. In several states it is 19 or 20, and in 20 states it is 21. A special problem exists in areas near the borders of states with different drinking ages. Too often youths from the state with the higher minimum age drive to the lower-minimum state to drink, and then drive back - drunk. In an effort to prevent that particular hazard, authorities in some communities, including college towns, respond by looking the other way when underage youths drink alcoholic beverages in their own town.
Establishing and enforcing a national, uniform minimum age of 21 will end these problems.