By Leah Walton, NTSB Safety Advocate
I was 21 years old in the year 2000 when I started working in the field of impaired driving prevention, specifically underage drinking prevention. I remember some of my colleagues recalling, “Back in my day, the legal drinking age was 18 years old.” I don’t have that recollection – as long as I can remember, I have known the legal drinking age to be 21.
It is incredible that many folks still remember a time when turning 18 meant a celebration of adulthood marked by legal consumption of alcohol. It is a similar feeling for me to consider that at one point seat belts weren’t standard safety equipment in vehicles.
Between 1970 and 1982, in many American states, the legal drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18 or 19. But on our roads, lowering the legal drinking age showed an immediate increase in deaths, as impaired teen drivers died, and killed others, behind the wheel.
Then on March 14, 1982, forty years ago, the NTSB investigated a collision where a train collided with a van at a railroad grade crossing in Mineola, NY, in what I might describe as a parent’s worst nightmare. Nine of the 10 occupants of the van, all teenagers, died. The tenth survived with serious injuries. The 19-year-old owner and presumed driver of the van, who died in the crash, was impaired at the time of the crash.
The crash was a turning point. By that July, NTSB called for states with drinking ages below age 21 to raise them to age 21.
Why was the drinking age lowered in the first place? In 1971, the 26th Amendment extended the right to vote in Federal elections to citizens as young as 18. Many states had already adopted age-18 voting. Taking the trend into the realm of alcohol consumption, between 1970 and 1973, 35 states lowered their drinking age to 18 or 19, either for beer and wine only, or for all alcoholic beverages.
This in turn sparked a deadly trend in alcohol-impaired driving crashes involving teen drivers, with some states changing their drinking ages back to 21. Studies of states that reverted from age 18 or 19 drinking back to age 21 showed impressive results.
For example, Michigan lowered its drinking age to 18 in January 1972 and raised it back to 21 in December 1978. A study of the change found “crash involvement among 18–20-year-old drivers, showed a reduction of 31 percent in the first 12 months after the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in December of 1978.”
There were precautions in place to prevent the Mineola crash – regardless of age, it was still illegal to drive impaired, and the owner and presumed driver of the van in the Mineola crash was impaired. Additionally, the grade crossing was protected by an automatic gate. The gate was lowered, and its lights were flashing, at the time of the crash. But the van was driven around the gate, onto the main line tracks of the Long Island Rail Road and into the path of an oncoming train.
Would it have mattered if the legal drinking age were 21? Perhaps, difficulty in obtaining alcohol would have broken the chain of events, perhaps not.
But we know that the fatality numbers change when the minimum drinking age changes. In statistical terms, it is clear, a drinking age of 21 saves lives. And, when combined with other changes, the culture around youth drinking and driving can change.
That is why, in 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was signed, effective September 30, 1985. With that law, also championed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other advocacy organizations, the state-by-state recommendations made by NTSB in the wake of the Mineola crash became national policy.
Since that time, even more research has come out about the age of full brain development (mid-20’s) and how alcohol affects the brain which reiterates the gravity of this law.
Devastating experiences, the newer science of brain development, the impact on alcohol and the developing brain, and historical data of lower drinking ages have shaped legal drinking age policy. However, while changing the legal drinking age has saved lives, over 10,000 die on the nation’s roads every year because of alcohol-impaired driving. The bottom line remains – impaired driving is 100% preventable – whether the driver is 18, 21, or 51 years old.
 Wagenaar, Alexander Clarence, The Minimum Legal Drinking Age: A Times-Series Impact Evaluation, Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1980, p. 148.