Let's talk about America's inconsistent age restrictions

September 29, 2020 4:27 PM

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A person in the driver's seat of a car holds and opens a glass beer bottle. Photo courtesy of energepic on Unsplash.

A person in the driver's seat of a car holds and opens a glass beer bottle. Photo courtesy of energepic on Unsplash.

You can be shipped off to war, forced to fight strangers, and dodge bombs all before you can have a sip of alcohol. That is the current state of age restrictions in the U.S. The U.S. has a lot of age restrictions on different things, some of these restrictions are disliked, some are liked, and some make no sense. At the end of the day, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent structure to these restrictions. With movements to lower the voting age growing, it is especially important now to breathe some consistency into our perceptions of maturity and capabilities. The American government needs to ask itself how much it trusts its youth and the American people need to tell the government what they think about maturity.

When you turn 18 in America, you get access to a host of new rights. You can vote, join the military, buy a house and get married in all 50 states! However, you have to wait three more years before you can drink alcohol or purchase tobacco or marijuana. To many, especially young Americans, this is a foolish oversight of the law and is an example of America’s inconsistency with age restrictions. 

People who argue for changing age restrictions like this will also bring up how American teens can drive alone before they turn 17. Among this and other age restrictions, we can paint a picture of how the American government portrays adolescents. For example, it is commonly agreed that the human brain does not finish development until around the age of 25. Around that time, the use of marijuana is not detrimental to future development, chiefly in the brain. However, our government allows people well under this age to purchase and consume marijuana. In the same vein, the government believes at the age of sixteen we are mature enough to control multi-ton metal boxes at high speeds. According to the CDC, in 2017 over 2,000 teens ages 16-19 died in motor vehicle crashes and around 300,000 more were injured. That means every day, six teens die in car crashes and hundreds more are injured. Fifteen percent of these fatal accidents involved intoxicated drivers. That means you cannot attribute the vast majority of teen car accidents to alcohol. In a study conducted by Peter Asch, a professor of economics at Rutgers University and David Levy, an economist at the Federal Trade Commission, it was concluded that much of the blame for these drunken accidents is the teen’s inexperience with alcohol. That means that because teens don’t know how to properly use alcohol, already high-risk drivers —teens— become extremely high-risk drivers. 

Adolescent drinking and driving are inextricably linked due to the many accidents caused by drunkenness, however, these situations could be amended if teen inexperience was removed. By extending the period during which teens are practicing driving, they will be more confident in their better ability to drive. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, roughly 4% of high school students are driving without a license and the percentage is the same for adolescents under 21 drinking alcohol. If the drinking age would be lowered, kids would be able to openly consume alcohol, which allows them to be safer with it. If the driving age would be raised (of course allowing for a longer period of permit-based driving), teens would be prohibited from being able to drive without an adult, decreasing the risk of drunk driving among minors. It is at the age of 18 when adolescents are given the majority of their freedom. Often young adults will go to college, get a job, and spend less time under their parents’ wings. 

Raising the driving age would save lives and lowering the drinking age would allow for legal, safe use of alcohol.

But how does the US compare to its European friends? Well in Europe, the legal drinking age is almost always eighteen, but also rarely enforced. According to chooseresponsibility.org, European teenagers reportedly consume alcohol more frequently than their American counterparts. However, European teenagers are reportedly less intoxicated than American teens. This means that while European teenagers drink alcohol more often, American teens are more likely to drink to excess. So not only is this a legal issue, but it is also a cultural issue. America suffers from a fear of alcohol and that is a major contributing factor to stigmatized, and as a result, unsafe use of alcohol.

One of the main problems with changing age restrictions is that the public grows comfortable with the current situation. Getting a driver’s license is a big milestone for adolescent independence and prohibiting that until eighteen would only stir up more teenage rebellion. Additionally, parents would be wary about lowering the drinking age to eighteen as it would lead to more alcohol-related deaths, accidents, and other incidents. However, it has been noted that much of the desire to drink illegally has to do with the risk-factor. If there is less fear and anxiety surrounding alcohol consumption, people will feel more at ease and more confident with the substance. Teens who choose to consume alcohol will be more prepared to safely drink and students who choose to not consume alcohol are safer as well. The argument of our current laws suggests that a higher drinking age saves more lives. However, as substances are prohibited they fall into illegal activity, which is far less safe than if it were legal. And this has been shown regarding marijuana. When illegal, substances can’t be regulated, however when they are legalized, the substance’s use can be recorded and monitored more. Most underage drinkers are eighteen and older. If we are prepared to send our eighteen-year-olds to war and let them vote, we should also be prepared to let them responsibly drink alcohol, which they would be more equipped to do if it were legal.

Arguments opposed to raising the driving age often bring up how it would prevent teens from being independent of their families and the families would be more stretched than they are now. Additionally, some argue that a higher driving age prevents working teens from generating income, especially for families that rely on that additional financial support from the children. These arguments are both strong and having additional drivers allows for more opportunity and an easier life for many families. However, the ability to purchase an additional car for one’s child is already a privilege many do not have and a more effective solution to helping these families in more dire straits is to address issues of income inequality, education funding, youth career exploration, making alterations to minimum wage, and increasing access to health care. 

There is no doubt that age restrictions are a quintessential aspect of the law. Safeguarding the future of our young should always be the top priority of a government, and age restrictions are created to protect young lives while also welcoming them to adulthood. However, we must acknowledge how inconsistent some of our age restrictions are. For America to lead the world by example, we must demonstrate that we are protecting our youth but also taking them seriously and treating them with respect and as responsible members of society. 

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