Why 21?

Why 21?

What's Magic About the Number 21?

Are you wondering what the deal is with the 21 minimum drinking age law?  Sure, it's a law but it doesn't always feel like it.  It's in all 50 states but do people pay attention to it?  You might question why the laws were written with 21 as the minimum drinking age, what's so special about that age, and how the law came to be.  Here's a lowdown on the most relevant information.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Some folks think 21 was pulled out of the air.  But despite what you may think, there are some pretty good reasons that age 21 was selected.

Back in the late 1960's and early 70's a number of states lowered their drinking age from 21 to 18.  In many of these states, research documented a significant increase in highway deaths of the teens affected by these laws.  So, in the early 1980's a movement began to raise the drinking age back to 21.  After the law changed back to 21, many of the states were monitored to check the difference in highway fatalities.  Researchers found that teenage deaths in fatal car crashes dropped considerable - in some cases up to 28% - when the laws were moved back to 21.  Like it or not, it is clear that more young people were killed on the highways when the drinking age was 18.  

Back in 1982 when the many of the states had minimum drinking ages of 18, 55% of all fatal crashes involving youth drivers involved alcohol. Since then, the alcohol-related traffic fatality rate has been cut in half!  Research estimates that from 1975-1997 more than 17,000 lives have been saved.  Hard to argue with that!  

A Strain in the Brain

According to the book Buzzed, the use of alcohol by young people is especially frightening.  We all hear about the dangers and consequences of underage drinking, but most of us know very little about how alcohol affects on the brains of young people.  

Buzzed says we should look at what we do know about young brains like the fact that they don't finish developing until a person is around twenty years old.  And one of the last regions to mature is intimately involved with the ability to plan and make complex judgments.  Young brains are built to acquire new memories and are "built to learn."    Buzzed reports that, "It is no accident that people are educated in our society during their early years, when they have more capacity for memory and learning.  However, with this added memory capacity may come additional risks associated with the use of alcohol."  Apparently on studies using animals, young brains are vulnerable to dangerous effects of alcohol, especially on learning and memory function.  If this is true of people, then young people who drink may be "powerfully impairing the brain functions on which they rely so heavily for learning."  So, in case there wasn't enough pressure to perform at school, at your job, or just in life, alcohol can prevent your use of your own brain.

So in answer to the question "Why?" the 21 minimum age drinking laws were established to save your brain and your life.


Youth Impaired Driving Issues Compendium.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving.