Does increasing the legal age for buying alcohol reduce traffic accidents?

Does increasing the legal drinking age reduce traffic accidents caused by young drivers? The idea is that if you increase the legal age at which people can drink, young people are going to quietly abide by the law, not do anything stupid, read the bible, contemplate their sinful natures, and stay out of trouble.

Hang on though, one thinks: drink-driving is already illegal at any age, so what exactly does one expect to change when one restricts the sale of alcohol to 21 years and over, instead of having the current age limit of 18? If you were worried about them breaking the law before, why would you think changing the drinking laws would help? Breaking 2 laws is harder than 1?

In a recent letter to the Medical Journal of Australia, Jason Lindo and Peter Siminski, two economists from Texas and Wollongong respectively, point out that the more recent and more authoritative economics studies find that raising the age limit on buying alcohol does not help reduce serious traffic accidents at all. They do this in reaction to a completely one-sided account by medics who call for the drinking age increase, citing mainly cross-sectional studies (find attached the letter by the two economists and the reply of the authors of the offending article, which basically admits the cherry-picking that they originally engaged in:Lindo and Siminski 2014 with Toumbourou et al reply).

Lindo and Siminski point out that in New South Wales, changes to drinking laws did not change the accident rate of young people. Neither did a recent reduction in the drinking age in New Zealand, where the drinking age reduced from 20 to 18, increase accident rates amongst the 18-19 year olds (their behaviour was changing already, but not after the law change). Moreover, they point to studies that show that people indeed do substitute alcohol for other drugs that also affect their driving, which helps explain why there is on balance neither a positive nor a negative effect on traffic accidents from changing the age drinking laws. The studies they quote, which include the only studies on Australia on this topic, used the latest techniques based on analysing changes in behaviour of young people just before and after the introduction of the laws, which is what one wants to do. Prior studies are less convincing because they compare behaviour between regions within a country or over long time periods, which comes with the problem that regions and periods differ for many other reasons than merely the drinking age.

More generally, one can doubt the wisdom of a puritanical attitude to alcohol simply by looking at differences across countries. Central Europe, and in particular France, Italy, Spain, and the other Southern European countries, have much more relaxed attitudes to alcohol, with kids learning much younger to be responsible with alcohol. The more repressive attitude in the UK and here in Australia, on the other hand, is associated with binge drinking, very high rates of teenage pregnancies, and extreme risk behaviour. Once the kids do get access to alcohol, often by illicit means as the forbidden fruit is made so enticing, they dont hold back, which should make one wonder about the wisdom of declaring the fruit so forbidden.

Lando and Siminski thus try to inject a bit of common sense and self-reflection into our debates on alcohol laws, apparently having to fight a rather puritanical bunch of medics that insists we cannot trust young people and should ban them from buying alcohol till they are 21. Yet, we allow those between 18 and 21 to drive, to vote, and to die for us as soldiers in foreign battles, but we are supposed to declare them incompetent when it comes to drinking?

Lando and Siminski are hence right, both on the latest science that says there is no real relation between the drinking age and traffic accidents, and on the larger issue of consumer choice: if we abandon the idea that all voters are equal and that we should proscribe the behaviour of some of them, where do we stop? Should we lock up all young people from the age of 15 to 25 to prevent them from doing anything we did ourselves but do not want them to do? I have heard medics argue this at conferences….

So it is a very paternalistic and holier-than-though brigade that wishes to control the lives of others, without any regard to the joy they are destroying, using selective studies to argue their case. Why did the MJA publish the original one-sided piece by medics, one wonders? Economists are right to resist such reckless and blinkered destruction of consumer surplus.

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9 years ago

I think another comparison that would be interesting would be to change the drinking age so that it is far under the driving limit like some places in Euroland and then see what would happen if you made it closer to the start of driving. Perhaps that has happened somewhere in Euroland that I’m not aware of. I suspect that this would cause more accidents, and so I don’t think you would get a symmetrical pattern (it’s not like all those puritan places in the US with really high legal age limits are actually stopping people drinking before then).

Also, it’s not clear to me that restricting alcohol leads to the problems you see in English speaking Anglo cultures. I suspect that it is really a two way street, where more authoritarian restrictions are done because of the drinking culture and not just that restricting alcohol causes the drinking culture. For example, the two worst countries for alcoholism are Russian and Mongolia, and this isn’t because alcohol is hard to come by for younger people. Similarly, one potential reason that you don’t see such great restrictions in non-English speaking countries in Euroland compared to English speaking ones is presumably in part because people don’t get drunk and fight to the extent that they do in English speaking countries.

9 years ago

There are neuroscientific reasons for discouraging the intake of many drugs (nicotine, alcohol, front brain stimulants, opiates) until age 25. Consumption of drugs up to this age causes delay in brain maturation. It is surprisingly late.

Other related behavioural reasons for discouraging such consumptions is the decrease in personal discount rates (the reduced impulsiveness) that occurs up to age 25. People who are more forward looking make more sensible decisions – for example few initiate smoking after this are.

9 years ago
Reply to  hc

The evidence that ingesting LOW levels of alcohol causes problems is actually not thrilling — most studies are done on animal models and on groups that have been heavy drinkers. In addition, if it was really the case that low levels of alcohol caused problems, the effect must be tiny because we don’t see any thrilling effects in parts of Euroland where kids drink low levels from a comparatively early age. So if low levels of drinking encourage people not to have high levels, that might be worthwhile (I’m personally not convinced of this incidentally).

Alternatively, binge drinking is sure to cause problems, but this is largely a cultural problem which is almost impossible to stop via legal means — indeed, if it was brain damage we cared about, we should be worried about it with groups we allow legal access to alcohol to now (e.g., 18 year olds). Similarly, if you look at people with a history of heavy but not binge drinking (which is very common), you can find effects of that too if you look in older populations who basically have worse outcomes because of it (in laymans terms, more likely to be the old people that appear to have largely lost it), but won’t don’t care about that either. That leads me to suspect we don’t care much about the brain damage alcohol causes, just the immediate problems.