Eight states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico still allow people under 21 to consume alcoholic beverages. On Oct. 1, those jurisdictions began paying a hefty price for what they see as an exercise of states' rights, and as none of Washington's business. During the fiscal year that began this month, the federal government will withhold an estimated $70.9 million in highway trust funds from South Dakota, Colorado, Louisiana, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Ohio, Tennessee, and Puerto Rico because of their refusal to adopt laws raising the minimum drinking age to 21.
Under the 1984 Uniform Minimum Drinking-Age Law, the US Department of Transportation may withhold from these jurisdictions 5 percent of the highway funds they would otherwise be entitled to during the 1987 fiscal year. The withheld amounts rise to 10 percent next year and 15 percent in subsequent years. However, the funds will be restored ``promptly'' when a jurisdiction enacts a law designating 21 as the minimum age for the purchase or possession of alcoholic beverages.
When the federal law was enacted, 23 states had a minimum drinking age of 21. Over the past two years, 19 other states have come into compliance with the federal standard.
The holdout states, however, say Washington is violating states' rights, in that the federal law institutes limited prohibition through financial arm-twisting. They argue that a national drinking age violates the 21st Amendment to the Constitution (which repealed national Prohibition) and upsets the balance of federalism.
South Dakota has requested a Supreme Court hearing on the issue. The state could lose $24 million if the court fails to buy the argument that setting a minimum drinking age is a state prerogative.
Jaciel Woster from the South Dakota attorney general's office says, ``We know South Dakota better than the federal government. This is blackmail. To states like South Dakota, with a lot of highways, this [the withheld amount] is a lot of money.''
Sarah F. Liebschutz, a public-policy professor at the State University of New York, says the states can still ``just say no'' and pay the price in funds. But she maintains that the lack of uniformity in state drinking-age laws creates ``blood borders.'' She notes that many young people prohibited from buying liquor in their own states can simply drive into a neighboring state to get alcohol, and that on too many tragic occasions they are involved in fatal crashes when returning home.
Supporters of the national law say the saving of young lives outweighs the states'-rights argument. Shirley Johnson, a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), whose 25-year-old son was killed by a driver under the influence of alcohol, says: ``The young people think it's never going to happen to them. Every time I pick up a paper and read about a fatal crash, it's somebody young. Not raising the minimum [drinking] age continues a process, continues the slaughter.''
Alexander C. Wagenaar, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, substantiates Mrs. Johnson's argument. The results of his six-year study evaluating the effects of raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in Michigan indicate that automobile accidents involving teen-age drinking fell 19 percent between 1978 and '84.
``In contrast to many alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures, raised legal drinking age appears to have a long-term effect in reducing youth motor vehicle crash involvement,'' Mr. Wagenaar says. ``Results for Michigan are consistent with the experiences of other states. The exact magnitude of that effect varies, but most frequently is in the 10-to-20 percent range.''
Allan Williams, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says, ``Teen-agers exceed all other age groups in involvement in alcohol-related crashes. A law raising the alcohol purchase age is by no means a panacea. It will not eliminate the problem of alcohol-impaired driving by teen-agers, but it will reduce the magnitude of the problem.''
A study published by Mike A. Males in the Journal of Legal Studies, however, asserts that determining the effects of legal changes on drunk-driving death rates of various age groups is ``surprisingly difficult.''
``In many states the opinion of the investigating officer determines whether an accident is alcohol-related,'' Mr. Males says. ``This type of estimation is neither definitive nor consistently applied from state to state or year to year, although it does produce hard-sounding numbers. Fewer than half of all drivers involved in fatal accidents are given blood-alcohol-content tests.''
Michigan's Wagenaar says the drinking age should not be viewed in isolation. ``Public policies on other dimensions of alcohol availability not limited to one specific age group -- such as the retail price of alcohol; design, location, number, and density of alcohol outlets; and selling, serving, and marketing practices -- should be examined for their utility in the prevention of alcohol-related health and social problems.''