Thursday, October 2, 2008


Much attention these days is rightfully focused on keeping our young people safe on the road. Recently, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety proposed that our nation raise the legal driving age. It’s an interesting proposal perhaps worthy of consideration.

Another recent suggestion that would impact roadway safety has inspired less debate and more concern and even outrage. A small percentage of U.S. college presidents floated the idea of potentially lowering the legal drinking age from 21 to 18. While no one believes these distinguished educators want to make our roads less safe or put young lives in danger, that’s exactly the impact this misguided suggestion would have.

As one of the most studied and debated public health laws in history, there’s overwhelming evidence the “21 law” works. It saves lives, prevents accidents, reduces drunk driving and leads to less underage and binge drinking.

It’s that latter issue — binge drinking — that prompted the proposal to reconsider the drinking age. Binge drinking is, indeed, a serious problem on college campuses. But there are ways to address it that don’t undermine a law that saves lives. It would be foolhardy to roll back more than two decades of progress when the traffic safety and public health benefits of the national 21-year-old drinking age are so well established.

According to various studies, an estimated 25,000 lives have been saved since states began adopting the 21-year-old drinking age in 1975. Mothers Against Drunk Driving cites studies that show the law also causes people under the age of 21 to drink less and continue drinking less throughout their 20s.

Instead of the recent suggestion to reconsider the 21 law, leaders should turn their attention to creating national standards for graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws, which ease novice drivers into greater and greater privileges. The effectiveness of these laws in reducing teen-crash rates has become increasingly evident.

Preventable car crashes are still the leading cause of death among American teens, claiming more than 5,000 young lives every year. As you might expect, the crash risk is especially high during the years when teens first get behind the wheel. Alcohol is clearly one factor, but more often poor judgment leads to crashes where speeding or overcorrection is the cause.

The Allstate Foundation has focused on teen driving as part of its overall mission to make American communities safer. Studies reviewed by the Foundation indicate the brain is not always fully developed until young people reach their mid-20s. Teens may weigh the factors that go into safe driving differently than adults, which helps explain why they are sometimes prone to driving too fast, getting distracted by other passengers or driving a car after drinking.

As much as frustrated parents might wish we could, we can’t rewire the teen-age brain. But we can give teens more time to become better decision makers on the road.

Most states issue graduated driver licenses that phase-in driving privileges for novice drivers. After a learner’s permit period, a licensed teen may drive with restrictions. North Carolina was one of the first in the nation to implement a comprehensive graduated driver’s license law, and the state has seen a 25 percent drop in crashes involving 16-year-olds.

Unfortunately, these laws vary from state to state. Federal legislation would bring uniformity to such laws - a step that will help save lives.

Our country achieved a great traffic-safety victory nearly 25 years ago, when it enacted the unified minimum drinking age of 21. Instead of taking a step back on that front, we should encourage our nation’s leaders to get behind a uniform standard for graduated driver licensing.

Giving teens time to gain experience behind the wheel - instead of giving them easier access to alcohol - is an effort that can truly save young lives.

George E. Ruebenson is president of Allstate Protection, the property-casualty division of Allstate Insurance Co.

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