Skip to main content
You can also sort pages by filters.
Table of Contents
Download the Full Book

Effectiveness: 5 Star Cost: $
Use: High
Time: Short

The primary strategies to reduce underage drinking as well as drinking and driving have been restricting access to alcohol via minimum purchase age laws. Since July 1988 the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) has been 21 in all States. There is strong evidence that MLDA-21 laws reduce drinking, driving after drinking, and alcohol-related crashes and injuries among youth (Hingson et al., 2004; McCartt, Hellinga, & Kirley, 2010; Shults et al., 2001; Wagenaar & Toomey, 2002). In fact, MLDA-21 laws reduced youth drinking and driving more than youth drinking alone (using the measurements of self-reporting and testing of impaired drivers in fatal crashes). Drinking and driving has become less socially acceptable among youth, and more youth have separated their drinking from their driving (Azofeifa et al., 2019; Hedlund et al., 2001).

The implementation of MLDA-21 laws for alcohol vendors, adults, and youth differ substantially from State to State. See the Alcohol Policy Information System for State-by-State summaries of some of the key provisions:

Use: The minimum age to buy alcohol is 21 in all 50 States and the District of Columbia.

 Effectiveness: Several reviews point to the effectiveness of MLDA-21 laws. Shults et al. (2001) identified 33 studies examining effects of changing the legal drinking age. Overall, changes to the MLDA affected alcohol-related crashes by 10% to 16%, with crashes decreasing when the MLDA was raised, and increasing when it was lowered. Wagenaar and Toomey (2002) reviewed 79 high-quality studies examining the relationship between the MLDA and crashes. Of these, 58% found fewer crashes associated with higher MLDA, whereas none found fewer crashes associated with lower MLDA. These findings prompted McCartt, Hellinga, and Kirley (2010) to conclude: “The highway safety benefits of MLDA-21 have been proven, and the cause-and-effect relationship between MLDA and highway crashes is clear. Deaths go up when the drinking age is lowered, and they go down when it is raised” (p. 180). NHTSA estimates that MLDA-21 laws have saved 31,959 lives since 1975, and an estimated 538 lives in 2017 alone (NCSA, 2020b).

A Canadian study compared alcohol-impaired driving offenses among drivers slightly older than the MLDA and drivers slightly younger than the MLDA (Callaghan, Gatley, Sanches, Asbridge, & Stockwell, 2016; Callaghan Gatley, Sanches, Benny, & Asbridge, 2016). The MLDA is 18 in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec provinces, and 19 elsewhere in Canada. The study found that drivers aging out of the drinking-age restriction were associated with increases in alcohol-impaired driving offenses ranging from 28 to 43% among males and 19 to 40% among females. The authors conclude that these findings provide support for raising the MLDA in Canada and implementing widespread zero-tolerance BAC policies for young drivers (Callaghan, Gatley, Sanches, Asbridge, & Stockwell, 2016). Both measures, along with focused public health awareness interventions, promote the development of safe driving skills and driving experience in young drivers.

Costs: There are no direct costs of MLDA-21 laws. Costs may be needed for enforcement of MLDA-21 laws. (See the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Sections 6.2 and 6.3).

Time to implement: MLDA-21 laws can be implemented as soon as appropriate legislation is enacted.

Other issues:

  • Repealing MLDA-21 laws: From 2007 to 2010 six U.S. States introduced legislation allowing at least some people under 21 to purchase and consume certain types of alcoholic beverages (McCartt et al., 2010); to date none have passed. Perhaps the most notable and highly publicized effort to lower the MLDA was a statement signed by approximately 120 college and university presidents in 2008 suggesting MLDA be lowered to 18. This group questioned the validity of MLDA-21 research, and advocated for education in place of laws to reduce drinking among young people. Many organizations have opposed lowering the legal drinking age. There has been more research on the MLDA than perhaps any other alcohol-control policy (Wechsler & Nelson, 2010). Most traffic safety experts have concluded that MLDA-21 laws are effective, and they recommend strengthening enforcement of MLDA-21 laws and establishing policies to support them. For further discussion of this issue, see Wechsler and Nelson (2010) and McCartt, Hellinga, and Kirley (2010).