Health, safety and transportation advocates denounced yesterday a proposal by more than 100 university administrators to reconsider the legal drinking age of 21 - contending that any reduction would lead to thousands of additional drunken-driving deaths and other harm to the public health.
A letter released by the college administrators did not specifically endorse a lowering of the drinking age, though many who signed it said they thought it should be reduced to age 18.
Opponents nationwide as well as in Maryland unleashed a barrage of e-mails and news releases scoffing at the notion that the current drinking age is "not working" and needs to be re-examined.
"Both research and the hands-on experience of state highway safety agencies indicate that this law has saved countless lives. Underage drinking remains a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but lowering the drinking age would be a gigantic step backward for highway safety," said Christopher J. Murphy, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Dr. Henry Wechsler, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, called proposals to lower the drinking age akin to "pouring gasoline to put the fire out.
"We know from previous experience that when the drinking age was lower in the 1970s, that deaths among 18- to 20-year-olds in traffic fatalities went up by about 800 a year," said Wechsler, the lead investigator in national studies done by the school of public health from 1993 to 2001 that examined binge drinking on college campuses in 40 states. "We also know that when the age was raised in the 1980s, the opposite occurred - deaths went down."
Call for debate
The criticism follows the release of a statement Monday by more than 100 college and university presidents - six of them from Maryland - calling for a new public debate on the age at which Americans are permitted to buy and consume alcohol. The educators contend that the higher drinking age has driven alcohol consumption underground and contributed to a campus culture that encourages dangerous "binge drinking."
The educators also say they cannot test new ideas and focus on better alcohol abuse education because of the law.
It didn't take long for the debate to take a vigorous turn as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), leading legislators and the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board denounced the idea of lowering the drinking age.
"It would be a national tragedy to turn back the clock and jeopardize the lives of more teens," said Mark V. Rosenker, the acting NTSB chief.
MADD sent out a list of the college presidents who signed the statement, urging its supporters to register their opposition.
In Maryland, Del. Willliam Bronrott urged the leaders of the University System of Maryland, the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Maryland-Biotechnology Institute, Towson University, Goucher University, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and Washington College to disassociate themselves from the initiative. The Montgomery County Democrat said that after a number of states lowered the drinking age in the early 1970s, nighttime fatal crashes increased 17 percent among those in the 18-20 age group.
Going back to legal drinking at 18 "would be the dumbest thing in the world that we could do," said Bronrott, who worked as a congressional staffer in the early 1980s to pass the federal law that led to the lower drinking age.
The Maryland lawmaker said the House Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, which he chairs, would receive a briefing from experts on youth drinking in Annapolis Sept. 23. He said he would invite representatives of the Maryland colleges that signed onto the statement to appear at the hearing.
Among the groups agreeing with Bronrott is the National Highway Safety Transportation Safety Administration. The federal agency says its studies show that lowering the age to 18 has saved lives since the federal standard was adopted in 1984.
"We're estimating that the reduced drinking age has saves 900 lives a year and 25,000 since we've begun collecting data on fatalities," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the agency. "We think that the minimum drinking age law has been incredibly effective at saving lives and we think it should stay just where it is."
The law's history
The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act - pushed by Bronrott's former boss, then-U.S. Rep. Michael D. Barnes of Maryland - was signed by President Ronald Reagan despite his misgivings about imposing mandates on the states. In effect, the law told the states and the District of Columbia to adopt a drinking age of 21 or face a 10 percent cut in federal highway funding.
All 50 states eventually complied, as did Washington, where the drinking age of 18 for beer and wine had been a magnet for young Marylanders.