A Modest Proposal On Drinking and Driving

As we approach the New Year, the #1 offical alcohol drinking night of the Year, I have a modest proposal for the youth of America: Trade in your driver's licences for drinking licences.

It is astonishing to reflect on how much the automobile has changed our physicial landscape and our culture. The legal drinking age in most countries around the world is 16 or 18, but in car-culture America it is 21. The main reason for this difference is more than just the usual American Puritanical attitudes, but rather a secular progressive movement led by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to lower alcohol-related death rates on America's highways and byways. Prior to a 1984 Federal law linking highway funding to the 21 year drinking age (later upheld by a 1987 Supreme Court ruling) each state set it's own drinking age. Since then the law (paternalism?) has been credited with saving thousands of lives on America's highways. It has also stood up time and again to ridicule at the inconsistencies between being able to vote, join the military, smoke cigarettes, buy firearms, get married, run for political office, but not have a pint of beer at a bar.

It is hard to argue with success and I would not want to go back to having drunk teenagers and cars mix like gin and tonic, but why should we let the state choose cars over alcohol for teenagers. In most places in America I guess cars are pretty much the only form of transportation and therefore more important than having the right to consume alcohol. But in urban areas like NYC, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, where very few people, nevermind teenagers, own cars, and mass transportation is plentiful this one-size-fits-all law doesn't make any sense at all.  

In the spirit of balancing individual freedoms of voting age citizens and limiting the carnage on America's roads, I have a modest proposal: At age 18, new voting age citizens can obtain a 3-year licence to Either Drink OR Drive, but not both.

This would empower the youth of America to be more responsible for their choices, a youth culture that values mass transit and carpooling. This one policy change could also take tens of thousands of cars off the road.

So, how about it America? Should we continue to let the car culture drive our drinking age restrictions, or should we let individuals choose their own path? Write your thoughts to Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta at dot.comments@dot.gov (that's the part of Federal government that has threatened to withhold highway funds) and tell them to let local governments set regulations on drinking and driving that are more appropriate to their transportation situation.

Very interesting point peakguy. I had my first drink at a bar in New Orleans two years before I could legally drink anywhere else in the nation. At that time, New Orleans realized that the city economy would get more money from tourism sparked by a drinking age of 18 than they would get in federal highway funds. It's probably not a coincidence that New Orleans is a tight-knit, transit-friendly city like the ones you mentioned. (My next legal drink came two years later, at the stroke of midnight in New Carrollton, Maryland, aboard an Amtrak train taking me back to college.)
I had my first legal drink in Vienna, Austria at age 16 while on an exchange program and did not have another legal drink until my study abroad in Copenhagen at age 20. No comment on the period inbetween, but I remember many people testing their limits to alcohol in parking lots on Staten Island and at frat houses on campus...not exactly developing a healthy relationship with drinking or drinking and driving...

When I worked in Cambridge (UK), during my early 20s, I discovered a great British institution called "the local" - every little village, town, or general gathering of anymore than 10 houses seemed to have a local pub, somewhere that anyone in the surrounding area could walk or ride a bike to conveniently. In "the local" you would find an intergenerational group of people from the area that all knew each other, drank, talked, debated, argued/fought and learned to live with each other. People even brought their kids to talk to the old men and drank soda and juice. I thought it was one of the best parts of British culture, and as a side benefit this institution greatly reduces driving to go drinking.

I think what we should do rather than create an either or is to lower the drinking age like it is in Europe.  Then young people will understand what alcohol does to them and will be more responsible drinkers and drivers.  As it stands right now most young people drink for the first time at wild parties or other dangerous isolated places, because they will get in trouble if caught drinking.  So you have kids drinking in isolated parking lots, parks, and other places that one has to drive to reach.