A pathologist who recently moved from Vermont to North Carolina has written an article in the American Journal of Forensic Sciences about the old Southern custom of lying in the road. The good doctor was apparently unacquainted with this practice, and he was upset to discover that every couple of weeks, on the average, one of my fellow Tar Heels gets run over and killed when engaged in it. Driven by the Yankee passion to explain things, this fellow argues that most of the fatalities are drunks looking for a warm place to sleep it off, who have the misfortune to choose poorly lighted country roads. They don’t do this sort of thing in Vermont, he concludes, because the roads aren’t warm enough.
Speaking of alcohol, my state, like many others, is in the process of raising its drinking age to 21. That strikes me as a singularly silly thing to be doing, but let’s give the other side a fair hearing. Why would a reasonable person believe that raising the drinking age is a good idea?
As I understand it, the argument has something to do with the specter of drunken teenagers driving around killing people, and, God knows, that’s a sobering thought. Nobody—not even I for the sake of argument—thinks drunk teenage drivers are a Good Thing. Let’s get that straight, to begin with.
But I’d as soon be hit by a drunk teenager as by a drunk octogenarian. And isn’t the question really that of when people become adults, responsible for their own behavior? Obviously it depends on the individual, but if we must have a universal agreed-upon fiction, shouldn’t it be something less than 21? I read somewhere that there used to be 17-year-old clipper-ship captains. If we treat 20-year-olds like children, can we reasonably expect them to behave like grown-ups? Are we going to extend adolescence until it meets middle age?
Think about it. At 18 you can join the armed forces without parental consent. I’ve never bought the argument “If they’re old enough to fight, they’re old enough to vote.” Dogs fight. But if they’re old enough to fight, surely they’re old enough to drink. Are you telling me all those jarheads from Camp Lejeune are supposed to sit around drinking root beer?
And certainly if they’re old enough to vote, they’re old enough to drink. The 18-year-old vote now enshrined in our Constitution means we trust these beardless youths and gentle maidens to decide between Democrats and Republicans. Why can’t we trust them enough to decide whether to face the world drunk or sober? (And given some of the alternatives our politics produces these days, a few belts might help with that choice, too.)
But there is the statistical argument. Apparently 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds tend more often than their elders to get drunk and run their cars into stationary objects and their fellow citizens. I’d be curious to see the statistics on 16- and 17-year-olds. I’ll bet that they kill themselves and others pretty often, too, with or without the assistance of liquor. This suggests an alternative solution, one more consistent and, to me at least, more philosophically satisfying: Raise the driving age. At 18, let people drink, drive, vote, enlist, get married, go to the gas chamber—pretend, that is, that they’re grown up human beings.
But my real objection to North Carolina’s raising its drinking age has to do with why we’re doing it. We are not doing it for the good indigenous reason that a lot of our citizens think liquor is the Devil’s brew. Our legislators ignored that sentiment readily enough when they approved local option on liquor-by-the-drink to appeal to tourists and conventioneers too dumb to figure out how brown bagging works. No, our drinking age is being raised because our Federal highway funds will be cut if it isn’t.
This is being done by the same legislators who recently passed a law requiring the use of seat belts in automobiles—not because they were convinced that the previous absence of such a requirement was a mistake, but because some unelected bureaucrats in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Transportation threatened to put exploding bags in the front seats of our cars if they didn’t. Roughly the same Federales decided a few years ago that North Carolina’s school buses were the wrong color. When they threatened to cut off our welfare if we didn’t repaint them, our state officials rolled over for that one, too.
This craven capitulation to Federal displeasure is getting out of hand, and I think the drinking age is as good a place as any to draw the line. Yes, I know the Yankees have the Bomb now, but what the heck—let’s make them use it. Where is the patriot to tell Washington to take its highway money and go to hell? Where is the Patrick Henry to say we’ve already got too damn many highways? If we build more, folks will just lie in them.