Lives spared as nearly all states move up drinking age to 21. As deadline for change arrives, only Wyoming and Puerto Rico refuse

``Blood borders'' was the rather gruesome name given to a number of state lines around the country in recent years as teen-age drivers took to crossing into neighboring states in search of a lower legal drinking age. Too often, the result was fatal.

With all states but Wyoming (and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) having heeded federal pressure and raised their drinking age to 21, the problem of crossing borders to drink has been virtually eliminated. That is just one result of federal legislation, passed in 1984, that threatened reductions in highway funds to states that did not adhere to the 21-year-old drinking age.

As the deadline for meeting the uniform drinking age or facing a 10 percent cut in federal highway funds takes effect today, law enforcement and safety officials around the country say the higher age limit has already resulted in hundreds of spared lives. In addition, many say they expect the long-range effect of the law to mean even lower fatalities as public awareness of the drunk-driving issue grows, and - as is hoped - the young drivers affected by higher age limits carry responsible driving habits into their adult years.

``Having the higher drinking age will raise the consciousness in the affected age group, and make them more responsible in their use of alcohol after they reach 21,'' says Jeffrey Miller, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

``Today everyone knows about drinking and driving, with `21' playing an important role in attitude changes,'' says Norma Phillips, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). ``Teen-agers are taking seriously the responsibility of taking that steering wheel in their hands.''

Not all states have come willingly to the higher drinking age. For many, the federal government was seen having no business telling them at what age their youths could legally drink.

As recently as a year ago seven states were still out of compliance with the law and faced the first level of reduction in highway funds - 5 percent. South Dakota is still technically a holdout, but when its drinking age increases to 21 next spring, it will be reimbursed for lost funds.

In practical terms, results of the higher drinking age limit are still somewhat sketchy. A number of studies over the past few years have shown at least a 13 percent reduction in involvement of 19- and 20-year-olds in fatal car crashes when a state's drinking age was increased. The NHTSA has estimated that if every state put its drinking age at 18, 1,100 more traffic fatalities would occur every year. In New York State, a 1986 youth alcohol survey showed that a year after the drinking age had been raised to 21 from 19, alcohol purchases by 16- to 20-year-olds had dropped 56 percent, alcohol consumption by the same age group was down 20 percent, and driving after drinking was down 21 percent.

Yet with 66 people still dying on the nation's roads in alcohol-related crashes every day, officials say tougher enforcement and education remain essential elements in the battle against drunk driving.

``It's about time we start treating drunk drivers like the killers they are,'' says Mrs. Phillips, whose son was killed, along with his girlfriend, when their car was struck by one driven by a drunken driver. ``We need even more education, and then swift and sure punishment....''

She points to a Sacramento, Calif., judge who routinely requires teens found guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol to visit a morgue to view young victims of similar behavior, to spend time in a hospital emergency room, to write an essay on those visits, and then to return to the courtroom with their parents to discuss what they've learned. ``[The judge] has had no repeat offenders,'' says Phillips.

On Oct. 24, MADD is calling for a national ``Drive for Life'' day where the goal will be 24 hours without alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

While drunk driving may never be eliminated, many safety officials are convinced the country is moving in the right direction. ``It's a little early to see much change,'' says David Wells, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety in Texas, a state that increased its drinking age in 1985. ``But already we're seeing some encouraging signs.''

With total traffic fatalities in Texas having fallen one-quarter between 1981 and 1986, Mr. Wells says the higher drinking age, plus the seat-belt law and a new prohibition on drinking and driving, are dovetailing to reduce fatalities further.

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