Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?

Article excerpt


The Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA), signed by President Ronald Reagan on July 17, 1984, threatened to withhold highway construction funds from states that failed to increase their minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 21 by October 1, 1986. Some states complied without protest, but many states balked and sued the federal government 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 reducing traffic fatalities among 18- to 20-yr-olds was sufficient reason for the federal government to intervene in an arena traditionally reserved to states. (1)

Research subsequent to the Court's decision appears to confirm that raising the MLDA saves lives and much of it points to the FUDAA in particular. Relying on this research, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attributes substantial declines in motor vehicle fatalities to federal and state traffic safety policies, particularly the MLDA21. For example, NHTSA estimates the cumulative number of lives saved by the MLDA21 at 21,887 through 2002 (NHTSA's National Center for Statistics and Analysis 2005a).

We challenge the view that MLDAs reduce traffic fatalities based on three findings. First, the overall impact estimated in earlier research is driven by states that increased their MLDA prior to any inducement from the federal government. Second, even in early-adopting states, the impact of the MLDA did not persist much past the year of adoption. Third, the MLDA has at most a minor impact on teen drinking.

The remainder of the article is organized as follows. Section II outlines the history of the MLDA and reviews the preexisting literature. Section III examines aggregate trends in the key variables. Section IV describes the state-level data set and presents panel estimates of the relation between the MLDA and the traffic fatalities. Section V investigates the effects of the MLDA on teen drinking.


When the United States repealed Alcohol Prohibition in 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment left states free to legalize, regulate, or prohibit alcohol as they saw fit. Most legalized but also enacted substantial regulation. This new regulation typically included an MLDA.

Table 1 gives the MLDA set by each state after Prohibition ended. (2) State reactions to federal repeal varied from Alabama maintaining state-level prohibition to Colorado legalizing alcohol without a minimum drinking age. In general, states set an MLDA between 18 and 21. In 1933, 32 states had an MLDA of 21 and 16 states had an MLDA between 18 and 20. With few exceptions, these MLDAs persisted through the late 1960s.

Between 1970 and 1976, 30 states lowered their MLDA from 21 to 18. These policy changes coincided with national efforts toward greater enfranchisement of youth, exemplified by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment granting 18- to 20-yr-olds the right to vote. The reasons for lowering the MLDA are not well understood and may have varied by state. Perhaps the changes reflected Vietnam-era logic that a person old enough to die for America is old enough to drink (Asch and Levy 1987; Mosher 1980). Whatever the reasons, the lower MLDAs "enfranchised" over five million 18- to 20-yr-olds to buy alcohol (Males 1986, p. 183).

Soon after the reductions in the MLDAs, empirical studies claimed that traffic collisions and fatalities were increasing in states that lowered their MLDA. Most prominently featured in congressional discussion were two comprehensive, multistate studies on the "life-saving" effects of raising the MLDA--the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study and the National Transportation Safety Board study. …

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