When President Reagan signed the bill for a uniform 21-year-old drinking age earlier this month, one of the saddest trends in America was reversed. No longer will teen-agers drive across state lines to buy alcohol - and drive back under its sometimes fatal influence. By this move alone, according to one recent study, the lives of some 730 young people a year will be spared - enough to populate several small liberal arts colleges.
Although that's plenty to cheer about, the bill opens through an even more fascinating door - and does so less by its logic than by its symbolism. Respecting states' rights, it stops short of requiring the 27 states with a lower-than-21 drinking age to raise their thresholds. It simply authorizes the withholding of federal funds from states that won't change. In theory, such withholding could have been aimed at any federal revenues flowing to the states - education funds, for example. In fact, the bill singles out federal highway construction funds.
Now, that's a thought-provoking choice. From one point of view, the linkage of highway funds to drinking-age limits doesn't make much rational sense. One could argue that states refusing to raise the age limits will need every extra penny to improve the signs and line-painting on their highways (in accordance with recommendations from the President's Commission on Drunk Driving) so that drunken drivers can more readily see them.
From another viewpoint, however, the linkage makes excellent symbolic sense. The most visible (though by no means the only) social cost of teen-age drinking involves traffic offenses.But drivers need cars. And cars need highways. So (the logic runs) let's focus on highway funds.
And that opens an intriguing symbolic door. To walk through it, one need only accept a simple premise and ask a simple question. The premise: Alcohol abuse is an extremely serious problem - so much so that nearly one-quarter of Americans polled recently by the Gallup Organization report that alcohol has been ''a cause of trouble in their homes.'' The question: Are there other areas (besides the 21-year-old limit) in which the government's control of highways might be used to curtail alcohol consumption?
One answer leaps out to any tourist crossing the Massachusetts border into southern New Hampshire. Shortly thereafter along the federally funded Interstate 93 - where the only turnoffs are normally for exit ramps and rest stops - comes the special turnoff for a beautifully constructed building in full view: the state liquor store.
New Hampshire is not alone: A telephone survey of the 18 states having state-run liquor stores found similar right-smack-on-the-Interstate outlets in Idaho, Michigan, and Mississippi, as well. If the symbolism linking highways and drinking has any power, here it is: wide parking lots, cars galore, and drivers bustling through broad doors with packages under their arms.
The argument for state-run liquor stores, of course, is that the states can both control the sales and reap the revenues from alcoholic beverages. That may be fine in theory. In practice, however, those twin functions of earning and policing can collide. If the goal is primarily to increase state revenues, the states have every incentive to seek out the most alluring sites they can find - to use their rights of eminent domain and bend highway-construction practices as no private business could. But if the goal is to regulate the sale of alcohol - and forcefully to sever the alcohol-highway linkage - the states should recognize the irony of symbolic gestures fostering the very problem their citizens seek to uproot. Needed, perhaps, is a bill making federal Interstate funds contingent upon the disappearance of such highway-side liquor stores.
And that's just one example. Given the symbolic importance of this drinking-driving link, should states take another look at highway billboards used for advertising liquor? Should they pay particular attention to isolated rural bars on roadways not served by public transportation - where most of those who drive away at closing time will have been drinking? Should they, given the prevalence of car radios, crack down on radio ads for alcoholic beverages that seek to promote instant thirst?
At the very least, the symbolic link forged by the President's pen should force the states, with their vast networks of highways, to think of themselves as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. At best, it could provide an opening wedge for even greater efforts to stamp out drunken driving.