Wisconsin Considers a Lower Drinking Age. Are They Serious?

Three Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin have introduced a bill to lower the state’s legal drinking age to 19. Currently the national age is 21. Supposedly the legislators are doing this because 19 is old enough to do a lot of things, and therefore buying alcohol should be one of them. But there’s more going on – of course.

It’s worth noting that such a law would only pass if Wisconsin would not lose its federal highway funding as a result. Withholding funds was the way that the federal government got states to agree to the higher drinking age in the first place. Currently there’s no reason to believe that Washington will make an exemption for Wisconsin, but that hasn’t stopped the bill yet.

Let’s look at the arguments being set forth to support this measure:

  • 19 is old enough to fight and die for your country, but not old enough to drink. True enough. But 19 is also not old enough to pilot a 747, or become a U.S. President, senator, representative or state governor. You can’t be a train engineer at 19. You can’t even rent a car. All of these are, one would think, less of a life-or-death matter than being a soldier. But sometimes maturity and judgement need to be taken into account.
  • Money not used for enforcing drinking laws would be better used elsewhere. Sounds good, but you can’t stop enforcing underage drinking laws. Perhaps there would be fewer prosecutions for selling beer to college students, but you’d still have to keep high schoolers from buying it, so the state would still need the same bureaucracy for checking up on alcohol sales – inspectors, task forces, and the like.

On the other side:

  • Wisconsin has a drinking problem. As we’ve noted before, the state has a toxic drinking culture and lax OWI laws as it is.
  • The 21 age limit has saved lives. We know that a higher drinking age does not prevent teenagers from drinking, but it does reduce it, and it reduces the number of drunk drivers on the road.
  • Follow the money. One of the lawmakers behind the bill is a past president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the state’s liquor lobby. One doubts that legislators just woke up one day and realized that 19-year-olds were being denied their beer unfairly. It’s much more likely that those with a financial interest in higher alcohol sales – particularly bars and restaurants – are pushing the bill.

An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come

Lowering the drinking age is the last thing that Wisconsin needs to do. That opinion is shared by, among others, the Eliminate Drunk Driving Education Foundation. Recently mothers who are part of that Wisconsin organization, and who lost children to drunk drivers, expressed their dismay at this proposed law.

A better idea would be to pass a stronger ignition interlock law, requiring all OWI offenders to install the device. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. Currently first offenders only have access to the device if they are arrested with a high blood alcohol content or have other aggravating factors. All drunk drivers should be required to install ignition interlocks – 30 states now have laws that make it mandatory to do so.

The state also needs to get serious with first offenders. Currently a first drunk driving offense at a level below .15 percent BAC is a ticketing offense, not a criminal one. The effect is to normalize drunk driving.

With luck the federal government will hold fast to its requirements and this bill will sink into oblivion. Wisconsin sees too many alcohol-related road deaths for a responsible legislature to even think about lowering the drinking age.