The young Eckerd College student who died four years ago when the car she was riding in ran off I-275 just yards from her exit to the college had been drinking in Tampa bars with her friend who was driving: She was 18; she was headed home to campus; and then she was dead. The friend, also underage, is now serving in prison for DUI manslaughter.
There are a few key points here: First, the 21-year-old drinking age limit did not keep her, as it does not keep most high school and college students, from drinking — if they want to do it. What the current age limit does is make drinking by those younger than 21 an illegal, furtive, clandestine experience, with little to no chance for adult oversight and care. Government surveys have shown that 51 percent of all young people between 18 and 20 are considered binge drinkers, consuming more than four or five drinks during a single occasion. One wonders what role the current age limit plays in that binge-drinking culture.
Second, our student was coming home, to us, that night, because she was not legally permitted to drink alcohol on campus. But, as the work done by MADD and others shows, it is not (usually) alcohol that kills, it is drunken driving that kills. It is conceivable that if we had been able to provide a legal and safe environment for responsible drinking on campus, that young woman would be alive today. One of the things we are doing all over this country with our current laws is requiring many of the young men and women under 21 who drink to use automobiles to do so.
Third, Eckerd College is a traditional liberal arts college, which means two things: We are relatively small (most enroll between 1,000 and 2,500 students), and we are very residential (roughly 80 percent of students at such colleges live on campus). Residential liberal arts colleges take the out-of-classroom experience to be just as much a part of an undergraduate's education — and just as much the college's responsibility — as what happens in the classroom. Residential colleges create communities, with faculty and staff deeply involved in the daily lives of their students. Our goal is to teach young adults to think for themselves, with academic and co-curricular programs built upon the best wisdom available about their developmental needs and urging them to make choices that enhance their own, and others', lives.
But the 21-year-old drinking age limit arbitrarily divides our community and, much worse, robs us of the chance to create a culture that encourages young people to drink responsibly, if they wish to drink, in a safe environment. What the current law does is send those under 21 who want to drink off campus into a world that takes their money and ignores the rest.
Now I am not absolutely sure lowering the drinking age to 18 will be an unalloyed better deal for my students — maybe it ought to be raised — but I am certain that rethinking this important cultural issue, given all the problems of the current environment, is long overdue. That's all the Amethyst Initiative asks for — to reopen the conversation, a conversation, by the way, that is not simply about alcohol but about good parenting, proactive schools and the development of responsible drinking behaviors in young adults.
The steps we as a society have taken in the past 25 years to address underage drinking are insufficient. A law enforcement system treating underage drinkers as criminals and a federal system that directs funds to highways based on a state's drinking age do little to teach young adults responsible behavior toward alcohol. We shouldn't think that because fewer young adults die from alcohol-related deaths when the drinking age is 21 versus when it was 18 that we have met our responsibilities. Too many young adults, under and over 21, continue to die each year due to alcohol-related deaths. The solutions to the problems we face need to go far beyond a drinking age limit. Since we are so far from perfect now, how can we not reopen a conversation this vital?
Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.