Coalition Counteracts Talk of Lowering Drinking Age

By MICHAEL WALSH, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (Oct. 9, 2007) - Upper Marlboro native Jan Withers may have lost her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa, to underage drunken driving, but she still stands behind a report that 25,000 lives have been saved by keeping the minimum age for drinking alcohol at 21.

Withers spoke at a news conference announcing the Support 21 campaign, aimed at preserving a law "proven to save teenagers' lives," said Mark V. Rosenker of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Wither's daughter was killed in April 1992 after the car she was in hit a guardrail at around 100 mph and ejected her into a forest. The driver of the car was 17 and had been drinking.

"It haunts me to think about the pain she felt at that time," said Withers, standing in front a picture of Alisa.

This time of year reminds Withers of her daughter, an accomplished ballerina who was then preparing for the Washington Ballet's performance of "The Nutcracker."

"She was joy in motion," Withers said.

The Support 21 campaign was born to counteract criticism of the minimum drinking age. Critics charge that soldiers old enough to fight and die in Iraq, for example, should be able to have a beer when they return home. The campaign is sponsored by NTSB, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Medical Association and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

That "superficial debate" over drinking ages in the media prompted Support 21, said MADD Chief Executive Officer Charles Hurley.

"If there's going to be a debate, we want it to be an informed debate," Hurley said.

The group cited a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that nearly 1,000 lives per year have been saved since 1984 and the number of alcohol-related deaths has been halved since the 1970s, according to information from the National Institutes of Health.

"We have not identified any new information that would change (NTSB's) position," Rosenker said.

Fifty studies have looked at the effectiveness of the 21 law, Rosenker said, and concluded that "lowering the drinking age again will not prevent deaths."

But not everyone agrees with holding the line at 21.

John McCardell, director of Choose Responsibility, an organization that supports lowering the drinking age, said the coalition is only looking at the science it wants to see.

"We can't listen selectively," McCardell said. "There are 50 studies that say it's working and there are 50 that say it isn't working."

The coalition focused on the lower drinking ages during the 60s, 70s and 80s before the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed.

NHTSA data shows that since the early 1980s the annual number of drunken driving deaths of people under 21 has dropped from more than 5,000 to fewer than 2,000.

"This is a part of our history that we need to remember so we don't repeat it," said Glynn Birch, MADD president.

But setting the bar at 21 just forces drinking underground, said McCardell. Minors drink in a "clandestine environment," he said, raising concerns about fatalities occurring off the highway.

"We hear no mention of that," McCardell said. "More than 1,000 lives of 18- to 24-year-olds are lost to alcohol each year off the road ways. Binge drinking by and large does not happen out in the open."

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, leaned on the data and accused critics of the 21 law of being naive.

"Highway safety policies need to be grounded in science," said Lund. "Not wishful thinking."

Hurley agreed.

"This is a choice free societies get to make," Hurley said. "The proven age for saving lives is 21."

Their view is garnering public support, the panel said, pointing to a July 2007 Gallup Poll that showed 77 percent of Americans opposing a federal law to lower the drinking age.

The numbers take on a personal meaning for Withers.

"These statistics are more than just numbers to me," Withers said. "Maybe the law didn't save Alisa, but maybe it saved her older sister, or her younger brother."

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