September 29th, 2009
09:13 AM ET

Drinking age of 21 saves lives

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/08/19/women.drunken.driving/art.women.dwi.gi.jpg caption="DUI arrests for women are up 30 percent, but men still outnumber them four to one, a study found."]

Toben F. Nelson, Traci L. Toomey and co-authors
Special to CNN

The national policy that set a minimum legal drinking age of 21 is being questioned by a group of 135 college and university presidents through an effort called the Amethyst Initiative.

In a September 16 commentary on CNN.com, Amethyst Initiative leader John McCardell, a former president of Middlebury College, proposes lowering the drinking age, which he suggests will lead to less drinking and related problems among college students.

History and a comprehensive review of the research tell a much different story. The evidence is clear, consistent and compelling: A drinking age of 21 has led to less drinking, fewer injuries and fewer deaths.

In the 1970s when many states reduced their drinking ages, drinking-related deaths among young people increased. When the drinking age of 21 was restored, deaths declined. This effect is not simply a historical artifact explained by advances in safety technology and other policies.

New Zealand recently lowered the drinking age based on many of the same arguments advanced by the Amethyst Initiative. The result was more alcohol-involved traffic crashes and emergency room visits among 15- to 19-year-olds. New Zealand is now considering raising its drinking age. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that setting the drinking age at 21 saves the lives of 900 young people each year and has saved more than 25,000 lives since 1975.

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