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McCardell explains that the drop in highway fatalities often cited by supporters of the 21 minimum age actually began in the late 1970s, well before the federal drinking age set in.
What's more, McCardell recently explained in an online chat for the "Chronicle of Higher Education," the drop is better explained by safer and better built cars, increased seat belt use and increasing awareness of the dangers of drunken driving than in a federal standard.
The age at highest risk for an alcohol-related auto fatality is 21, followed by 22 and 23, an indication that delaying first exposure to alcohol until young adults are away from home may not be the best way to introduce them to drink.
McCardell isn't alone. Kenyon College President S. Georgia Nugent has expressed frustration with the law, particularly in 2005 after the alcohol-related death of a Kenyon student. And former Time magazine editor and higher ed reporter Barrett Seaman echoed McCardell's concerns in 2005.
The period since the 21 minimum drinking age took effect has been "marked by a shift from beer to hard liquor," Seaman wrote in Time, "consumed not in large social settings, since that was now illegal, but furtively and dangerously in students' residences. In my reporting at colleges around the country, I did not meet any presidents or deans who felt the 21-year age minimum helps their efforts to curb the abuse of alcohol on their campuses."
The federal drinking age has become somewhat sacrosanct among public health activists, who've consistently relied on the accident data to quell debate over the law's merits.
They've moved on to other battles, such as scolding parents for giving their own kids a taste of alcohol before the age of 21 or attacking the alcohol industry for advertising during sporting events or in magazines aimed at adults that are sometimes read by people under the age of 21.
But after 20 years, perhaps it's time to take a second look—a sound, sober (pardon the pun), science-based look—at the law's costs and benefits, as well as the sound philosophical objections to it.
McCardell provides a welcome voice in a debate too often dominated by hysterics. But beyond McCardell, Congress should really consider abandoning the federal minimum altogether, or at least the federal funding blackmail that gives it teeth.
State and local governments are far better at passing laws that reflect the values, morals and habits of their communities.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. This article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.
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