THERE IS a most understandable wave of emotional argument in the Maryland General Assembly this year for new curbs on teen-age drinking. Concern has been spurred by the crash last summer of a pickup truck near Ft. Meade in which 10 teenagers were killed. The driver (then 18) had been drinking -- he was subsequently convicted of manslaughter though acquitted of homicide with a motor vehicle while intoxicated. That chilling event dramatically pointed up the ever-troubling dilemma that lawmakers face in trying to crack down effectively on young people who overindulge. The toughest is how to draw the line.
What about the age limit? A strong campaign has been waged to raise Maryland's minimum drinking age from 18 to 19, in hope that this might at least have an effect on purchases made by high school students for the below-18 group. But late last week, the House judiciary committee turned to a more interesting and effective approach: the committee approved a measure requiring that youths under 18 who are convicted of drinking, buying or possessing liquor lose their drivers' licenses for at least one month.
One month may not be enough, but as Del. Charles E. Kountz (D-Montgomery) noted, the sanction is one that would hurt: "If these kids in high school understand that they're going to have their drivers' licenses suspended, they won't participate in this nonsense."
Under the proposal, there would be automatic suspensions of a violator's license for at least 30 days but not more than 90 days; those 19 or under who have no license but who qualify in the future would face an automatic delay of at least a month in the issuance of the permit.
The legal aspects of this approach may need study, but its appeal is strong. This is so not only because getting a drivers' license happens to be one of the most cherished ambitions of most teen-agers, but also because raising the minimum drinking age has its pitfalls. For one thing, without a similar action to raise the age limit in the District of Columbia, 18-year-olds in Maryland might pour into the city for their beer and wine -- and presumably drive back home somehow.Besides, in today's world, the 18-year-old college-age person is considered an adult in too many other ways.
To oppose a raising of the minimum legal drinking age is not to minimize the extremely serious problems of alcohol use by minors. But the most frightening aspect of this use is its connection with driving. Nobody -- adult or minor -- should be licensed to threaten other peoples' lives with drunken driving.