Old enough to die, but not to drink?

We disagree with the recent suggestion by a group of college presidents that the national drinking age be lowered to 18. Our disagreement has a very basic foundation: Eighteen-year-olds attend high school and giving them legal access to alcohol would without question make it easier for underage students to do so illegally.

But we do not disagree with the premise that this nation's 21-year-old minimum age restriction is arbitrary and should be debated. There are 20-year-old Americans driving heavy equipment, building houses, falling trees in the woods and, yes, putting their lives on the line every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet they can't legally drink a beer in this country.

It wasn't always so. Twenty years ago, Congress set the age restriction and required states to adopt it or lose federal highway funds. Since the buck speaks louder than a teenager, the states adopted it. As a result, the United States has the highest drinking age in the world, along with Mongolia, Indonesia and Palau.

Now, though, a group of about 100 college presidents has raised the issue anew, saying the 21-year-old minimum actually increases the incidence of dangerous binge drinking for students. They have not explicitly called for an 18-year-old minimum, but say the current law isn't working.

It's clear college-age drinking is a serious problem. One study reported 40 percent of college students show at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. The Associated Press reports that another study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

Opponents of the idea of lowering the drinking age cite their own statistics, noting that alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped precipitously in the past two decades. Certainly some of that is due to the drinking age changes, but it's also attributable to a major change in the way society views — and prosecutes — drunken drivers.

The real question is, why 21? At one point it was the age at which people could vote, but the idea that soldiers in war couldn't cast a ballot put an end to that. It also was the minimum age set for knighthood centuries ago. In short, it's an arbitrary age.

Would more young people die in alcohol-related accidents if the age limit were lowered? Probably. Would fewer die if the age were raised to 25? Probably. How about 35? Sure.

Lowering the drinking age, perhaps to 19, is not an unreasonable suggestion. It certainly doesn't warrant the kind of invective directed at the college presidents who endorsed the idea — Mothers Against Drunk Driving even suggested parents think twice about sending their children to colleges whose presidents participated.

We can't agree with 18 as the starting point for legal drinking, but we do think a national debate could be a starting point for addressing a very real issue that affects students, families, colleges and communities across the country.

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