Momentum toward raising the minimum drinking age to 21 nationwide has received a surprising boost from the Reagan administration. Raising the age level at which a person can legally purchase alcohol is a top priority for groups that oppose drunken driving. President Reagan agrees with them, but believes the initiative should be left up to individual states.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would withhold federal highway funds from states that refuse to comply with a minimum drinking age of 21. At a rally urging Senate support for the measure, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced a change in administration policy.

“Since last fall, four states have raised their drinking ages to 21. In all, 23 of our states now have age 21 laws. But the momentum appears to have stalled,” she said. “Efforts to raise the drinking age to 21 failed in 19 states this year alone.” This convinced Reagan to come forward in support of a law that would make age 21 all but mandatory. Withholding highway funds is the same mechanism used by Congress to ensure 55-mile-per-hour speed limits on interstate highways across the country.

The legislation’s sponsors in both the House and Senate are from New Jersey, a state which saw a 26 percent reduction in nighttime traffic fatalities among 19-and 20-year-old drivers last year. A serious drunk-driving problem persists there, however, because young adults drive to New York—where the age limit is 19—to drink.

Across the country, similar checkerboard patterns of variation exist. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers, who are twice as likely to be involved in drunk-driving fatalities as other drivers. Even so, there is scattered Senate opposition to the measure. Some senators would prefer a tougher crackdown on the problem, while others want to stick with Reagan’s original reasoning and leave the decision up to the states. The U.S. Student Association and the National Restaurant Association have testified against the bill on the basis of civil rights for young adults.

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