George Will

That theory, McCardell believes, has been slain by facts. What is needed now is some ``mechanism other than moral suasion'' to regulate alcohol use by the under-21 cohort.

The drinking age of 21 was one of 39 measures proposed during the 1980s by a presidential commission on drunk driving; various measures adopted did dramatically reduce the problem. But according to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, about 5,000 people under 21 die every year from vehicular accidents, other injuries, homicides and suicides involving underage drinking. Supporters of the drinking age of 21 say there is nothing wrong with the law that better enforcement could not cure.

McCardell thinks that, on campuses, a drinking age of 21 infantilizes students, encouraging immature behavior with alcohol and disrespect for law generally. Furthermore, an ``enforcement only'' policy makes school administrations adversaries of students and interferes with their attempts to acquaint students with pertinent information, such as the neurological effects of alcohol on young brains. He notes that 18-year-olds have a right to marry, adopt children, serve as legal guardians for minors, purchase firearms from authorized dealers, and are trusted with the vote and military responsibilities. So, he says, it is not unreasonable to think that they can, with proper preparation, be trusted to drink.

McCardell -- gray hair, gray suit, soft voice; he says he is a ``social drinker'' -- and his group, Choose Responsibility, suggest merely that drinking by 18-year-olds be treated like driving by young people -- as an activity requiring a license earned after instruction, with provisions for suspending the license when the right it confers is abused.

Students may not care about McCardell's cause because they have little trouble finding fake IDs, or getting older friends to purchase their alcohol. His strongest argument, however, may be that delaying legal drinking until 21 merely delays tragedies that might be prevented with earlier instruction in temperance. The age that has the most drunk driving fatalities? Twenty-one.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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