Adulthood at 18 -- not 16, not 21

July 22, 1996|By Morris Chafetz

WASHINGTON -- Just how old is ''old enough'' in the United States? Sometimes it is hard to tell.

Although 16-year-olds with little, if any, training are old enough to get behind the wheel of a car weighing more than a ton, they still are considered too young to make many important decisions that accrue to them automatically when they turn 18.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution endows Americans who reach age 18 with nearly all the privileges of adulthood. Suddenly, they can vote, sign contracts, get married without parental consent, ignore curfews and buy tickets for X-rated movies. By the time they reach the age of majority, many 18-year-olds have left or are preparing to leave their parent's homes -- to establish their own households or join the military or go off to college.

But despite an 18-year-old's ability to live as an adult in conceivably every other way, society has determined it will take at least three more years before that ''adult'' is responsible enough to have a drink that contains alcohol.

He cannot, for instance, go to a baseball game on a hot summer day and enjoy an ice-cold beer with his adult peers. He cannot go to a wedding and toast the newly married couple with a glass of champagne. He cannot, in the manner of such American notables as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, enhance memorable dinner with a glass of wine.

If the logic behind these socially accepted and legally enforced rules seems cloudy, it is. Much of the reasoning behind the determination to keep 18-year-olds from drinking stems from a misguided concern that they will quickly end up as highway fatalities.

If they stopped for a moment and considered what is already known about today's early driving age and ''older-adult'' drinking age, most people would be surprised. The federal government's own figures, compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, show that 16-year-old drivers have much higher rates of traffic violations and fatalities than the rest of the population.

The risk of a 16-year-old driver becoming a highway fatality is 20 times higher than that of a driver in the 40- to 65-year-old age group. Fatality rates dramatically decrease once young drivers reach 18, as maturity and judgment come to the fore.

If 16-year-olds pose this great a danger on our roads, why is 16 supported as the legal driving age? One simple explanation may that to the parents and other adults busy battling all manner of ''corrupting influences,'' tampering with a tradition-blessed right of passage -- a license to drive -- is unnecessary and inconvenient.

A driver's license, after all, is a freedom often anticipated with relish; it announces the youngsters' independence from parents and frees parents from the drudgery of car pools and other parental chauffeuring duties. Providing 16-year-olds with a license is seen by most as a ''win-win'' situation for everyone. But is it really?

65 percent fewer accidents

I think not. If we consider what would happen if we simply raised the legal driving age to 18 we soon learn what a losing proposition licensing people as young as 16 really is. Make the legal driving age 18 and, according to a report in the American Journal of Public Health, the teen-age accident rate would plummet by a remarkable 65 percent.

Of course, suggesting that the driving age be increased will not make anyone popular with teens or their parents or the automobile industry. The issue, after all, is about convenience. Whether you are a young driver or a parent who has relinquished chauffeur responsibilities, the fact is that, perceptually, the advantages of the current driving age outweigh the safety risks.

The impact of perception on legal mandates like the driving age cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Just consider how perception fuels the debate surrounding alcohol. Regardless of the breadth of privileges the 26th Amendment bestows on 18-year-olds, when the subject is drinking adulthood means being 21.

The U.S. is fairly unusual in this respect. Most countries set their drinking thresholds at 18, while accepting moderate consumption of alcohol as a healthy, socially acceptable, adult behavior.

By awarding all the rights and privileges of adulthood to 18-year-olds with exception of the right to buy and consume alcoholic beverages, we may well be setting ourselves up for having the law broken -- thus giving alcohol a specialness it does not deserve, and creating a climate for alcohol abuse.

How old is ''old enough?'' Many European nations already have established 18 as the legal driving and drinking age, and have suffered no great inconvenience or social upheaval. Perhaps the time also has come for the United States to raise the driving age and lower the drinking age.

Morris Chafetz, president of the Health Education Foundation Inc., is the author of the book, ''The Tyranny of Experts.''

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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