Let Them Drink;
Don't Let Them Drink and Drive

by Tom Gerety

Thanks to concerns about highway safety, we have laws in every state that set our drinking age at 21. They are widely flouted and give an important lesson in the ways that the best intentions make the worst law.

In recommending a nationwide crackdown on teenage driving to reduce the number of highway deaths, the National Transportation Safety Board recently painted a picture of young teenagers who obtain alcohol easily and who frequently drink and drive. Setting the drinking age unrealistically high is not the answer. We should allow young adults to drink as they do in Europe, teaching them to do so in moderation. But we should not allow them, or anyone else, to drink and drive.

I write as a college president and parent who knows that one beer is his limit before going to sleep.

All around me - at my own college and those across the country - I see drinking by students: some of it responsible, some of it not. Many of those who drink on this and every other campus are not yet 21. Indeed, we believe that some of our heaviest drinkers are freshmen. One student told the dean of students that he was shocked to find that college students drink almost as much as the high school students he knew.

Not all students drink and overall they drink less now than they did several years ago. But the many who do not know how to drink in moderation give us plenty of cause for concern. Not only driving, but dating, walking, and even horsing around can become dangerous activities when students are drunk. Where students do become the victims of sexual or other assaults, excessive consumption of alcohol is often a contributing factor. The same is true of the campus high jinks that lead to tragedy.

Students drink at bars with false ID's which are now ubiquitous. They drink in their rooms with bottles of vodka purchased with the help of their older friends. They go to parties where their peers dispense beer as if on a rescue mission to people dying of thirst. I asked a colleague who is president of a religiously affiliated "dry" school what the situation was on his campus: "They drink like alcoholics," he told me, "in their rooms, in the bushes, behind the gym; they drink in secret because we punish them for drinking openly."

One important piece of information that we have managed to teach most young people is that they should not drink and drive. That accounts for the improvement over the last several years in the driving records of those under 21. Fatalities associated with drunk driving by teenagers are down 37 percent since l982. We need to bring that number down further, and we can. If we are going to do so we need to focus on the real problem: drunkenness, and in particular, drunkenness associated with driving and other potentially dangerous activities - including, nowadays, dating.

Recent reports from the Highway Safety Agency suggest that we can continue to improve this record. First, the educational campaign has worked in our high schools. In no small part this is because the message holds up: Don't drink and drive, we say over and again, providing examples of the results when people ignore that maxim. Second, the enforcement campaign has worked, too. Most of us know that policemen, judges and employers take drunk driving seriously and that punishments are often stiff.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, formed in 1980 by mothers whose sons and daughters had been killed or injured in car accidents involving drunk drivers, led us as a nation to be tougher and more vigilant about the dangers of driving after drinking. To do something about the random killing on the road by drunks, whatever their age, required - and still requires - a massive and relentless effort to improve our policing, our judging, our punishing, and our educating of drivers tempted to drive after drinking.

Somehow this effort got confused with America's tendency toward prohibition, in this case prohibition before 21. But prohibition doesn't work, and it teaches young people hypocrisy and evasion. All of us who teach know that our students are drinking long before they turn 21, but none of us is in a position to stop them. And where we would like to teach moderation, we are forced to teach prohibition - a lesson that few will heed.

 

At the time this article was written, Tom Gerety was president of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is now president of Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

References and Readings

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