Have you ever noticed how, every time some teenager does something “stupid,” a hue and cry goes up to pass some law aimed at “preventing” future occurrences? Oh yes, and the loudest cries usually come from knee jerk state lawmakers.
In Delaware, there is a bill in the early stages of sponsorship that would, if passed, result in teens losing their driving privileges if caught in the act of underage drinking.
The mere presence of a blood-alcohol level, however slight, would constitute legal grounds—whether they were driving at the time or NOT!
Well, it all sounds good and tough, but it’s no more than just another one of those convenient cure-alls that will wind up on the junk heap of stuff that never actually worked.
Adolescent problems abound throughout society: teenage drinking, adolescent drug use, and teen crime—to name but a few.
We’ve increased the legal drinking age and installed zero-tolerance policies in our schools and criminal justice systems.
We’ve established curfews, tried teenagers as adults, and sent them to adult prisons. And, I’ve even heard cries for adolescent executions.
It’s amazing, really. For all of our chest-thumping, get tough on crime proclamations, we still have one-percent of our adult population in jail, the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Obviously, something’s eschew, as comedian Lewis Black would say. But, this never stops us from attempting to get even tougher.
Oh, we try other methods for a few months, but when they don’t seem to work right away, we go back to “getting tough,” which has NEVER worked.
If these techniques fail to work on adults, why do we keep trying to make them work on our adolescent population?
Politicians love cure-all solutions, commonly referred to as panaceas. The things are so convenient in terms of almost no relative costs AND they NEVER apply to the adults who propose them.
But, every bit as important as these two characteristics, cure-alls NEVER address the need to change adult values and conditions that have a much more powerful affect on adolescent behavior.
Adolescent curfews, adolescent drug testing, zero tolerance policies, and myriad other social cure-alls are wildly popular with local and national lawmakers for three reasons.
First, they NEVER interfere with our adult freedoms. Second, they make we adults feel better about ourselves because we’re so accomplished at conning ourselves into believing that we’re “doing” something. And third, they get politicians reelected with a minimum of intellectual effort.
I am, by no means, a social “do-gooder.” I fully recognize that we have serious adolescent-generated problems; and that we must address them for the greater good. I just don’t think that cure-alls work.
Neither time nor space permits me to address all of the ones I’ve mentioned so far. So, I’m going to pick on just one: our current favorite, underage drinking.
This past week I came across some data that sheds some sensible light on the problems that occur whenever we erroneously analyze underage drinking—translated as drinking alcoholic beverages prior to the age of 21-years.
It involved an old report—around the year 2000—put out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The report claimed that our ban on under-21 alcohol drinking in 1975 has saved 19,120 lives to date.
I couldn’t find any documentation on that number: 19,120. I’m a skeptic by nature, as are most of us that live in the world of legitimate science. Frankly, I wanted to see where the NHTSA got 19,120.
So, I began to dig around. I found a 1984 report published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety regarding teenaged traffic fatalities. The report cited 7,648 teenage lives saved by increasing the minimum drinking age.
The study claimed that in states that raised the drinking age to 21-years, traffic fatalities fell around 10% more for ages 18 to 20 than they did for 21- to 24-year-olds.
Fine! Does it prove cause and effect, though? I seriously doubt it. But guess what number you come up with if you multiply 7,648 by 2.5?
Do the arithmetic. If all the NHTSA did was fudge the numbers—and it seems as though they did—their report was not worth the paper they used to print it.
I did some more digging. I found another report authored by Peter Asch and David Levy, professors from Rutgers and Baltimore University respectively.
They found that raising the drinking age to 21 resulted in a reduction in deaths in the 18-20-year-old group but raised them in the 21-24-year-old group.
They concluded that a “minimum legal drinking age has no perceptible control on driving fatalities.” They concluded even further, “Inexperience in drinking is a much more applicable risk factor… AND it’s independent of age.”
In 2001, Tom Dee and Bill Evans, from Swarthmore and the University of Maryland respectively, confirmed the earlier study. Only the latter study looked at multiple factors.
They concluded that raising the legal drinking age shifted some fatality risks from teenagers to young adults.
Specifically, raising the drinking age from 19 to 21 cut traffic fatalities for the 18- and 19-year-old set by 5% but increased it for the 22- and 23-year-old set by 8%.
In other words, it did nothing other than to increase (significantly) the “magnitude of mortality redistribution.”
We need to learn that there is a difference between saving lives and postponing death, particularly as it applies to the skill sets of both driving AND responsible drinking.
All of us who do both of these responsibly, learned how to do so by DOING, not by reading a manual of some kind. And, DOING is a critical component to adolescent leaning. We need to make sure we don’t forget this.
In order to master responsible adult behaviors, adolescents must practice them, whether it’s drinking, driving, or any other responsible adult activity.
I’m not advocating letting 16-year-olds drink or letting 12-year-olds drive. I’m simply saying that raising the legal drinking age from… say 18 or 19 to 21 does NOT prevent drinking related fatalities.
Nor, will raising the minimum driving age to 18 or even 20 prevent youthful driving deaths. It will simply shift the age at which they occur.
However, limiting the number of young people who can be in a young driver’s car will prevent multiple simultaneous deaths. This is good.
And, here’s another “sobering” statistic from the same report. In 40% of the drinking-related teen driving fatalities and almost 90% of those involving even younger children, the drunk driver was OVER the age of 21-years.
Throughout the United States, objective statistics prove that the majority of these so-called tough solutions fail to work, but we keep applying them.
In controlled city studies, for example, curfews were either not effective or increased the incidence of crime. The same is true of “zero tolerance” policies. They do virtually nothing to curb drug use.
Adolescents need time to practice responsible adult skills. Postponing the learning process does not help. Like it or not, we’re going to lose some adolescents to driving accidents, drinking notwithstanding. It’s a function of inexperience.
Here’s an idea. While it will take a greater degree of intellectual aptitude and time, perhaps teaching teenagers by example would prove more beneficial in the end than draconian measures aimed at getting tough, for the mere sake of it, have been so far.
God knows that our seemingly perpetual quest to abolish adolescence has not worked out too well.
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.