Fourteen teen-agers die each day in alcohol-related car accidents. The annual death toll is equivalent to wiping out six average American high schools, grades 9 through 12. Why single out teen-age fatalities for public focus? Isn't every death by drunk driving an equally grim testament to human fallibility and error? Statistics speak to the question eloquently.
Teen-agers comprise only 8 percent of the population, drive a mere 6 percent of all highway miles, yet are involved in 15 percent of all fatal alcohol-related accidents. Of the 25,000 persons who die annually in drunk driving accidents, 5,000 are teen-agers; a full 35 percent are aged 16-24.
No one solution can aspire to eradicate the tragedy of drunk driving. We can, however, take issue with the ease with which the two ingredients are combined, particularly by our teen-agers. Arguments in favor of a minimum age of 21 for the purchase and consumption of alcohol are simple and compelling:
First, studies by the insurance industry and others, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have consistently demonstrated that the rate of alcohol- related crashes declines markedly--an average 28 percent--just after the age of 21.
Second, a minimum age of 21 puts alcohol further out of the reach of 15-, 16- and 17- year-olds, who often depend on slightly older peers to buy their alcohol legally, or who can "pass" for the minimum age of 18 or 19 at many bars and taverns.
Third, the right to abuse alcohol has never been guaranteed to any age group; our drunk driving statutes attest to that. To ignore the preponderance of evidence against teen-age drinking and driving flies in the face of the common good.
Fourth--and for this I draw heavily on personal experience--a uniform minimum age for purchasing and drinking alcohol is imperative to eliminate the "border problem" that plagues states that set higher age requisites than their neighbors. Pennsylvania is one of the "21" states; until July 1, 1983, Maryland was not.
In the first days of this Congress, I introduced with the strong support of, among others, Rep. Mike Barnes of Maryland a resolution calling on states currently enforcing under-21 laws to raise them to a uniform 21 across the country. This resolution and its companion Senate piece, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have been co- sponsored by 15 senators and 74 representatives, and have received the blessing of both HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler and Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. A broad coalition, too, of concerned groups has applauded the "21" concept: Mothers Against Drunk Driving; the National Transportation Safety Board; the American Medical Association; the AAA and the International Chiefs of Police, among many others. The "21" proposal also is a key tenet of the report issued earlier this year by the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. All parties are firmly committed to the premise that a uniform and higher minimum age is fundamental to any serious attempt to curb the national drunk driving epidemic.
We do no one any serious harm or hardship in raising the minimum age; quite the contrary. What we will do is save many teen- age lives, the lives of their innocent victims and the heartache of young surviving drunk drivers who must live wth the fatal consequences of a brief, heady encounter with alcohol and a steering wheel.