Did the Federal Drinking Age Law Save Lives? in This Case, Coercive Federalism Did Not Improve Public Welfare

Article excerpt

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act, a law that threatened to withhold federal highway funds from states that failed to increase their minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 21. Many states objected to this federal intrusion and provided for rollback of their MLDA21 if the federal law was repealed or held unconstitutional, or if the federal sanctions expired. South Dakota went so far as to sue Reagan's secretary of transportation, Elizabeth Dole, to prevent implementation of the act. In South Dakota v. Dole (1987), however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the act constitutional. The Court decided that the "relatively small financial inducement offered by Congress" was not so coercive "as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion." The Court argued, in particular, that promoting "safe interstate travel" was sufficient reason for the federal government to set alcohol policy, a responsibility traditionally reserved to the states under the 21st Amendment.

Research subsequent to the Court's decision appears to confirm that raising the drinking age to 21, and the 1984 federal law in particular, saved lives. Relying on this research, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes substantial declines in motor vehicle fatalities to federal and state traffic-safety policies, especially the MLDA21. NHTSA estimates the cumulative number of lives saved by the drinking age law at over 25,000 through 2008. Thus, the conventional view attributes enormous benefit to federal intervention in an area that had traditionally been left to the states.

Our recent research reexamines whether the 1984 act reduced traffic fatalities by pushing states to adopt a minimum legal drinking age of 21. As in earlier work, we compare traffic fatality rates in states before and after they changed their MLDA to 21. In contrast to earlier work, however, we look separately at the effect in states that adopted the higher drinking age on their own versus those pressured to do so by the 1984 law. This is a crucial comparison because the argument for federal imposition rests on the assumption that the act itself reduced fatalities, not just that an MLDA21 reduced fatalities in some states.

The results of our analysis are striking. Virtually all the lifesaving effect of the MLDA21 came from a few states that adopted the restriction before the federal law was passed, not from the larger number of states that adopted the restriction under federal pressure. Further, any life-saving effect in the early-adopting states was temporary, occurring largely in the first few years after adoption of the MLDA21. Thus the MLDA21 did not produce its main claimed benefit overall, and any such benefit was in precisely those states where no federal coercion occurred.

Our results therefore challenge the value of coercive federalism. While we cannot rule out a short-term, life-saving effect of the MLDA21 when adopted by states of their own volition, we find no evidence that it saves lives when the federal government compels this policy. This makes sense if a higher MLDA works only when state governments can set a drinking age that reflects local attitudes and concerns, and when states are energized to enforce such laws. A policy imposed from on high--especially one that is readily evaded and opposed by a large fraction of the citizenry--is virtually guaranteed to fail.

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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

When the United States repealed Alcohol Prohibition in 1933, the 21st Amendment left states free to legalize, regulate, or prohibit alcohol. Most states chose to legalize but regulate. This new regulation typically included an MLDA, although state reaction to Prohibition's repeal varied. Alabama, for example, maintained state-level prohibition, while Colorado legalized alcohol without adopting a minimum drinking age. Most states set an MLDA between 18 and 21, with 32 adopting an MLDA of 21 and 16 adopting an MLDA between 18 and 20. …