States refusing to raise their minimum drinking age to 21 may find themselves shortchanged in federal highway funds. A step in that direction has been taken by the United States House of Representatives, and backers of a similar measure in the Senate are pressing hard for its passage.
Despite efforts such as a planned gathering today on the steps of the Capitol , led by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, prospects for favorable action in the upper branch of Congress are uncertain.
The legislation was inserted as a House floor amendment by US Rep. James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey in the $7.2 billion surface transportation bill. It give states two years to impose a minimum drinking age of 21. States failing to meet that requirement would have 5 percent of their federal roadbuilding funds withheld the first year and 10 percent the second.
The House measure, approved last week, follows a recommendation of the President Reagan's commission on drunken driving. In December the panel called for a national drinking age of 21, to reduce liquor-related traffic accidents.
Currently 27 states and the District of Columbia have lower drinking ages for some or all alcoholic beverages. Four other states - Arizona, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Tennessee - have move to raise their drinking ages in recent months. And a similar move may be on the way in Massachusetts, where the minimum age is 20.
The Tennessee legislation, expected to be signed Tuesday by Gov. Lamar Alexander, raises the drinking age from 18 to 21 as of Aug. 1. A bill signed by Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy on May 22 boosts Rhode Island's minimum from 20 to 21 on July 1. The Nebraska and Arizona laws enacted this year raised their drinking ages from 19 to 21.
Similar legislation was downed in New York on May 30 by an 80-to-69 vote in the General Assembly, despite a major lobbying effort toward its passage by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a proponent of a national drinking age. The House-approved funding restrictions could setback the Empire State's roadbuilding program. Nationally, it could cost states up to $100 million in highway funds, according to congressional sources.
US Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey and Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana are trying to insert a similar provision in their chamber's version of the surface transportation bill.
But Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, whose state is one of three in the nation where 18 -year-olds can purchase and consume all types of alcoholic beverages, is cool to the idea. He supports a uniform drinking age of 21 but favors leaving the matter to each state.
Representative Howard, who chairs the House Public Works Committee, emphasized that it is ''not a matter of states' rights. It is a problem of human lives.''
Drivers between ages 16 and 24 accounted for 52 percent of the nation's road fatalities in 1982, according to Jim Fell of the National Highway Safety Administration. The largest number of these drivers are under 21, he adds, and liquor is frequently involved.
The President's drunken-driving commission has continued on under nongovernmental auspices and is headed by former Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe. It has made a national drinking age one of its top goals.
Besides Vermont, 18-year-olds can legally have all forms of liquor in Hawaii and Louisiana; and beer or wine in the District of Columbia and eight others states - Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia - where the minimum age for other liquor is 21.
Nineteen-year-olds can buy all types of liquor in 12 states: Alabama, Florida , Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Four states - Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire - have a minimum age of 20. With the addition of Tennessee, the 23 states in compliance with the pending federal legislation would be Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington.