In its 2001 White Paper, “European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide,” the European Commission set the goal of halving road traffic fatalities by 2010. As 2010 approaches, debate continues in Europe as to which policies will bring about a reduction in traffic fatalities, a subject of much concern in the United States as well.
Yet the United States and Europe take substantially different approaches to minimizing traffic deaths, particularly those related to teenage drinking. Most US States licenses drivers at a relatively young age, 16, but outlaws drinking until 21. By contrast the driving age in European countries is often 18 while the drinking age is generally 16-18 and less strictly enforced than in the US. Several European countries are currently debating changes in their alcohol-related policies, with much of this discussion aimed at more stringent regulation of access to alcohol or limits on amounts that can be consumed before driving. In some countries, including England and Scotland, the debate surrounding the appropriate level of the drinking age has reemerged and there have been several proposals to raise it to 21.
Existing research from the United States has typically claimed to find that a higher Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) reduces traffic fatalities among the affected age range. Moreover, this research implicitly endorses a “federal” approach, meaning the imposition of a higher MLDA on lower political units by a central governing body. European countries considering policy changes might reasonably look to this research and conclude both that a higher MLDA saves lives and that top-down policy making—such as EU rules mandating a common MLDA for member states—would be appropriate.
Our recent research, however, challenges both these views. We conclude that the MLDA of 21 rather than 18 does not play a significant role in reducing 18-20 year old traffic fatalities and may even have raised fatalities among younger groups. We also conclude that federal imposition of an MLDA of 21 was not effective in bringing about the desired traffic safety objectives. To understand the nature and implications of our results, a brief history is in order.
MLDA policies in the United States were historically the purview of state governments. These laws first arose in the mid-1930s after repeal of Alcohol Prohibition in 1933. At that time, most states adopted MLDAs of 21, with a few choosing 18 and one not adopting an MLDA at all.
Between 1970 and 1976, in accordance with national efforts toward greater enfranchisement of youth, 30 states lowered their drinking age from 21 to 18. This was the status of MLDA policies in the United States for about a decade, with only a few states returning to an MLDA of 21 in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Then in 1984, with support from President Ronald Reagan, Congress enacted a law that put pressure on all states to raise their MLDAs to 21 or risk losing federal highway funding. Many states resisted the change, going so far as to bring suit against the federal government and enacting laws that only took effect if the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Federal intervention. In South Dakota v. Dole (1987), the Supreme Court did just that, so by 1989 all states had increased their MLDAs to 21.
Federal imposition of a policy on states has been widely regarded as an ideal way to test that policy’s effects, since the possibility of reverse causation—states adopting lower MLDAs in response to factors simultaneously lowering driving fatalities—is less relevant when a policy is imposed from outside. Nevertheless, some US states did increase the drinking age of their own volition, prior to the Federal intervention. Earlier research has not discerned the extent to which the measured impact of the MLDA in reducing fatalities stems from the states that freely chose to raise the age rather than from those that had the increase thrust upon them.
In fact, our statistical analysis shows that the negative relation between the drinking age and traffic fatalities found in previous research derives primarily from the proactive adopters of an MLDA of 21. The MLDA had no effect in reducing traffic fatalities in the states that were coerced into adopting the policy by federal intervention. Thus, in the states where the policy was imposed exogenously, so that drawing a causal inference is most valid, we find no evidence of any impact.
We find further that even in the proactive adopters of an MLDA of 21, the policy had a short term effect at best. Further, the timing of when fatalities dropped relative to when the policy changed is implausible, since the estimates suggest the policy lowered fatalities before it was adopted. Finally, these same estimates indicate, if anything, that the MLDA increased 17 year old traffic fatalities. This is particularly troubling as 17 year old drivers should not have been able to access alcohol even then the MLDA was 18, suggesting that MLDAs tend to be evaded.
The right conclusion, therefore, is that increasing the MLDA from 18 to 21 did not reduce traffic fatalities in the US. This finding does not by itself indicate the appropriate drinking age policy for European countries, since multiple factors are relevant and different across locations: the driving age, road density, safety measures like seat belts, car access by teenagers, and so on.
It is possible, however, to provide a broad brush assessment of US policies in total versus typical European policies. For the past decade, the United States has had approximately 150 fatalities per million inhabitants with a population approaching 300 million while the European Union has averaged 95 fatalities per million inhabitants with a population of roughly 500 million. Thus, prima facie, the package of policies in Europe—including a higher driving age and a lower drinking age—leads to lower rather than higher fatalities. This is a first-step analysis at best, but it provides no reason to believe that mirroring the US approach by raising the MLDA is a good idea for Europe. Furthermore, our research provides no reason to think that imposing a common drinking age on the European Union would bring Europe closer to its 2010 traffic safety objective.
Miron, Jeffrey A. and Elina Tetelbaum (2007), “Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?,” NBER Working Paper No. 13257.