Mar 11, 2009

Drinking age

60 Minutes is one of the most consistently great shows on television. I got around to watching some episodes I hadn't seen yet, and there was an excellent segment from an episode a few weeks ago, "The Debate On Lowering The Drinking Age".

The debate comes down to a trade-off: if the age gets lowered from 21 to 18, there'll be less unhealthy binge drinking and overdosing, but there will be an increase of around 900 deaths. The person in the segment didn't say explicitly, but I assume that this was a reference to increased traffic fatalities.

The segment ends with a liberal educator-type, John McCardell, laying out his plan for teaching youngsters about how to drink responsibly starting before age 18. I think that this drinking age problem is really an engineering trade-off that needs to be balanced. Classes and instructors are going to provide limited value.

If you lower the drinking age to 18, you solve some of the problems of binge drinking by college students, but you create a new problem of more traffic fatalities, which taxpayers are not going to like. The solution here is to reduce the traffic fatalities problem which will balance out the situation.

To solve this problem, pick one state, or one large metropolitan area, lower the age to 18, and do some experimentation to see what drunk driving penalties will keep the traffic fatality rate back where it was with a drinking age of 21. At present, most people can have about two drinks before they start to border on legally drunk. I say lower that threshold to a BAC of 0.02%, which is about one drink for a regular person. Anything above that and you're fair game for a drunk driving conviction.

In California, your first conviction gets you between 96 hours and 6 months of jail. The second one gets you 90 days to 1 year. In my experiment, California (or some other jurisdiction) would double those sentencing guidelines. Then they'd run the experiment for long enough to gather reliable statistics. If we're still below the acceptable limit for traffic fatalities, they double the time durations each time until they find the right amount of jail time that keeps people from drunk driving. Of course, there's always going to be some people that misbehave regardless of the consequences; the key here is that we want those people to be few enough that the taxpayer can accept the 18 year old drinking age.

From what I've seen, it seems like they're doing just fine in the PRC with an 18 year old minimum age. I suspect that the difference with the US is due to the big contrast in automobile culture. Americans are learning to drive at 15 or 16 years old. Here, I have colleagues in their mid to late twenties that are finally taking driving lessons. The underage drunk driving problem is much less an issue, but that may change as lifestyles and incomes adjust here.

I always learn something new from 60 Minutes. One of my take-aways from this segment was that I learned what a Super Irish Car Bomb is. If I were a college student with a strong desire to waste a bunch of good booze by mixing it together and chugging it so I black out, maybe I'd try it.


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