Senate gets tough on states that don't get tough on alcohol

Raise your minimum drinking age to 21 - or else. This is the message of legislation now moving fast through Congress. Its boosters anticipate it could prevent the deaths of 700 to 1,000 people a year in liquor-related highway accidents.

The measure, which breezed through the House on a voice vote June 7 and cleared the Senate Tuesday by a lopsided 81 to 16 vote, would give states two years to bring their minimum drinking ages up to 21 or face withholding of certain federal highway funds.

President Reagan, although cool to the idea of what amounts to a uniform drinking age, as recommended last December by his special commission on drunken driving, shifted his position earlier this month and now favors it.

Sponsors of the measure, led by its chief sponsor, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, maintain it does not impose a minimum drinking age on any state.

Critics, like Sens. Stephen Symms (R) of Idaho and Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, view the thrust of the measure, however, as a violation of states' rights.

Currently 27 states and the District of Columbia have age minimums below 21 for the purchase and use of at least some forms of alcoholic beverages.

Under terms of the legislation, violating states would forfeit 5 percent of their federal road-building and repair allotment in fiscal 1987 and 10 percent in fiscal 1988.

States enacting the minimum age during that period would receive retroactively any money withheld, Senator Lautenberg says. States that failed to act by the end of the penalty period would not get their money back.

Estimates prepared for Lautenberg by the Transportation Department show that if they retained their below-minimum drinking ages, the 27 states plus the District of Columbia would lose $284.9 million the first year of the penalty and

The department estimated that Texas would be the big loser, forfeiting $33.2 million under a 5 percent penalty in fiscal 1987. The figure would double in fiscal 1988.

The figures for New York are $30.1 million and $60.2 million. Florida could initially lose more than $24.2 million and double that amount the second year.

Unlike the House-approved version, the Senate-passed measure contains a reward of extra highway safety money for states that meet the standards and also impose mandatory driving license suspensions and minimum sentences for drunken drivers.

This latter amendment, pushed by Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R) of Connecticut, embraces other recommendations of the presidential commission, which called for an automatic 90-day license suspension and a choice of 48 hours in jail or 100 hours of public-service work for first-time drunken-driving convictions.

Among those widely hailing passage of the measure is John A. Volpe, who headed the presidential commission and anticipates it will spur more states to raise their drinking ages ''and cut down on drunk driving.''

He says the inducements added by the Senate are particularly important if states are to come to grips with the problem of liquor-related road deaths. Recalling his experience as transportation secretary under President Nixon, he says, ''The carrot approach always seemed to work better in getting states to do something. This is good, because it combines both the carrot and the stick.''

Rober Calvin of the the Washington, D.C.-based Highway Users' Federation expects that many states will move to raise their drinking ages to prevent loss of highway construction and repair dollars.

Within the past few months, four states - Arizona, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and Tennessee - have enacted such measures. Similar legislation cleared the Massachusetts House last week and is pending in the state Senate, which last year rejected an identical measure to raise the drinking age from 20 to 21.

But despite a strong push from Gov. Mario Cuomo, New York lawmakers earlier this month thwarted efforts to bring the state's drinking age from 19 to 21.

Strong support for raising the drinking age to 21 has come from the National Transportation Safety Board, whose road-safety program director, Barry Sweedler, suggests that how effective the measure proves will hinge substantially on the drunken-driving curbs of individual states.

Noting that some 22,000 people are killed annually in alcohol-related accidents and that some 20 percent involve drivers under age 21, he anticipates that ''something in the neighborhood of 700 fewer persons a year may be killed with full compliance and enforcement of the measure to set 21 as the drinking age.''

States that have raised their drinking ages to 21 have reduced their highway road deaths involving drivers under 25 by about 29 percent, Mr. Sweedler observes.

While only three states - Hawaii, Louisiana, and Vermont - permit 18 -year-olds to have all types of liquor, eight others plus the District of Columbia allow 18- and 19-year-olds to drink beer and/or wine. Another 12 permit 19-year-olds to have all types of liquor, and four have a minimum drinking age of 20.

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