Archived Story

The drinking age is 21 for a good reason

Published 6:17am Sunday, December 30, 2012

Column: Ask a Trooper, by Jacalyn Sticha

Why don’t we just let our youth drink at age 18 like we used to? They would have more experience and guidance by adults if we did.

A little history

The 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed prohibition — thus allowing states to regulate how and by whom alcohol could be consumed. When this occurred, in 1933, most states had a minimum drinking age of 21.

Jacalyn Sticha

By 1982 only 14 states retained minimum legal drinking age of 21 years. In the 1970s and 1980s the minimum legal drinking age became a traffic safety problem as it became calculable that youth’s traffic crashes increased when states lowered the drinking age.

In 1984 Congress enacted the National Minimum Purchase Age Act, which prohibited the purchase and possession of alcohol if under 21. Simultaneously they put pressure on the states that did not raise the minimum legal drinking age to 21; states that did not comply would lose a portion of their federal highway construction funding. By 1988 all states had a minimum legal drinking age of 21.


The outcome

Even before the last states came on board, it was becoming apparent that youth lives were being saved nationwide due to a higher drinking age; from 1975 through 1996 there were more than 17,000 fewer youth deaths thanks to having the higher drinking age across the nation. Alcohol-related crashes involving young drivers have also declined 63 percent since 1982. Taking alcohol out of youth’s lives more earnestly than ever before had spectacular side effects — reduced youth suicides, marijuana use, alcohol consumption and crime.

Two national studies showed the positives of a 21 minimum legal drinking age. Both high school students and youth after turning 21 drank less if they were from a state with a minimum legal drinking age of 21. They also found a direct result from lower alcohol consumption was fewer traffic crashes. (O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991 and Voas, Tippets, and Fell, 1999, FARS data)


United States vs. Europe

Some people in the United States often cite, incorrectly, that European countries with lower drinking ages show fewer youth alcohol problems than the United States. The Minnesota Department of Health website shares information stating that U.S. 15- and 16-year-olds drank less and binged less than 35 European nations and that 75 percent of the European nations had a higher percentage of youth drinking to intoxication.

Many European countries have made changes during the last decade and for good reason.

France saw a 50 percent increase in the number of 15- to 24-year-olds hospitalized for excessive alcohol use between 2004 and 2007. During this time, alcohol was the leading cause of death among the French. In 2009, France raised the drinking age from 16 to 18 and banned open bars (for a single fee, a patron could drink as much as he or she wanted). It is not a reach to expect these countries to make even more changes in the next decade showing a firmer grip on their youth’s consumption.


More facts

• The behavior of 18-year-olds directly affects the behavior of 15- to 17-year-olds. Reducing drinking behavior for the prior also reduces it for the latter.

• A drinking age of 18 is associated with adverse outcomes among births to young mothers.

• There is potential harm alcohol may have on the developing brain, which is maturing well into the 20s.

• When teens drink they tend to drink heavily.

• The later a youth is introduced to alcohol, the less likely they are to have problems surrounding drinking: DWIs, school dropout rates, dependency, traffic crashes and violent crimes. Waiting until 21 to consume alcohol gives them the best odds.

• Arguing that an 18-year-old can join the service and fight for our nation so they should be able to drink legally means permitting doing something harmful to their emotional and physical well being. Drinking should never be considered a reward or rite of passage.


(Facts are from U.S. Department of Transportation, National High Traffic Administration’s Underage Drinking Prevention Project; Minnesota Department of Health and Education; Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.)


Can you provide some facts on impaired driving?

A little history:

The state’s first drunken driving law enacted was in 1911.

When baby boomers began to drive in the 1960s, more than 60 percent of traffic deaths were due to drinking and driving. This started to decrease in the 1980s. Currently about 30 percent of all fatalities are alcohol-related.

The earliest record of traffic deaths was in 1910, with 23 fatalities. Systematic record keeping on crashes started much later in the 1930s.

Who and how many:

Over 570,191 Minnesotans (10.7 percent) have one or more DWIs on record. Of licensed drivers in the state, one in seven have one or more incidents on record, one in 17 have two or more and one in 30 have three or more. Startling, 1,265 Minnesotans have 10 or more impaired driving incidents.

In 2011, there were 29,257 impaired driving incidents, with 1,903 being underage drivers.

In 55 percent of impaired driving incidents the violators are 20- to 34-year-olds. Males committed 73 percent of the incidents.

Of all violators, 60 percent had no prior alcohol incidents on record, leaving 40 percent as re-offenders. Of those who incur a second violation, half of them will go on to a third, half with a third incident will incur a fourth. Impaired driving incidents remain permanently on a violator’s record.

Where and when:

Mahnomen, Mille Lacs, Clearwater, Cass and Becker Counties have the highest percentage of impaired driving incidents on record and Stevens, Rock, Lincoln, Carver and Washington have the lowest.

Fridays account for 16 percent of all alcohol incidents, Saturdays for 27 percent and, finally, Sunday for 23 percent.

Did you know that through the holiday the Minnesota State Patrol and allied law enforcement agencies will have extra patrols on the road focusing specifically on Impaired Driver? You will notice!


(Information taken from Minnesota Motor Vehicle Impaired Driving Facts, 2011, from the Office of Traffic Safety of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety)


Jacalyn Sticha is a sergeant with the Minnesota State Patrol.