A recent Post editorial May 9 opposed on "home rule" grounds my suggestion that the federal payment to the District of Columbia be cut if D.C. doesn't work to raise its legal drinking age from 18 to 21.
The issue, however, is not home rule. Rather, it is an issue of public health and safety that affects District residents as well as their neighbors in surrounding communities.
Congress has already recognized that drunk driving is an issue of federal concern. Responding to recommendations from the President's Commission on Drunk Driving, Congress, with my support, overwhelmingly adopted legislation in 1984 that gave states and the District two years to raise their drinking age to a 21-year-old minimum. Those jurisdictions that fail to act forfeit 5 percent of their federal highway funds in FY 1987 and 10 percent in FY 1988. Last month, President Reagan signed legislation making these sanctions permanent, and 41 states have now adopted the 21-year-old minimum.
Why is additional federal action needed to raise the drinking age in Washington? The District is the only place on the East Coast that has not acted to protect its young people. Remarkably, 47 states no longer sell alcohol to 18-year-olds. Passage of pending legislationju in Hawaii and Louisiana would make the District and Colorado the only places in the United States still selling alcohol to 18-year-olds.ju This is a dubious distinction for the nation's capital.
There is another reason for action that is even more compelling. That is the need for uniformity between adjoining jurisdictions to prevent the tragedy of "blood borders." States taking responsible action, such as Maryland and Virginia, are in fact penalized and their residents endangered when neighboring jurisdictions keep lower drinking ages. Teen-agers in Virginia and Maryland now have a positive incentive to drive into the District and drink. The District, and particularly Georgetown, has become a mecca for teen-age drinkers.
In reality, the effective drinking age in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs is 18ju as long as the District fails to act. A re-ju cent survey by the Metropolitan Washing-ju ton Council of Governments showed that while alcohol-related crashes in the metropolitanju area involving drivers under 21 appear to be declining, there were still 274 such crashes reported between December 1985 and March 1986. Of those who indicated where they had bought the alcohol, a majority said the District of Columbia.
The District's lower drinking age also negatively affects our region in another way. The Department of Defense has long supported the 21-year-old drinking age since the principal cause of death in the armed forces today is drunk driving. The Department of Defense raised the drinking age on all military bases across the country to 21, except where there is a jurisdiction with a lower drinking age within 50 miles. This is to prevent the base perimeter from becoming a "blood border." With the large number of military facilities within 50 miles of the D.C. metropolitan area, the problem is particularly severe and endangers all who use our roads.
The risk to communities near these facilities was tragically illustrated in 1983. An under-21 soldier got drunk at Ft. Myer in Arlington, drove off the base and collided with anotherju car head on, leaving one Northern Virginia teen-ager dead and his girlfriend crippled for life.
It is also significant that the District is visited every year by many thousands of high school students and other young people. Since the District is one of few places in the country where teens can buy alcohol, those who come here on class trips, internshiops and other purposes are unnecessarily at risk.
The uniform drinking age is not the only solution to the problem of teens drinking and driving. But it does make a significant difference. The two most comprehensive studies, available from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, both came to identical conclusions: in jurisdictions that raised the minimum drinking age to 21 years, a 13 percent decrease in nighttime fatal crashes involving the affected age group was reported.
History, too, supports this statistic. During the 1970s, many states lowered their drinking age from 21 to 18. In the early 1980s, the surgeon general found that longevity had increased for all age groups but one: 16- to 24-year-olds were dying at a greater rate. The leading cause of death for these young people? Alcohol-related traffic accidents.
The time for the District to act is now, and bold leadership by Mayor Marion Barry and by Council Chairman David Clarke is essential to protect our young people and make our streets safe. The issue is not home rule or the loss of income to D.C. bar owners. The issue is whether to protect the health and safety of District residents and their neighbors in Maryland and Virginia. Let us work together to benefit the entire metropolitan region.