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Efforts to raise the minimum legal drinking age to 21 spread

Two more states have joined the ranks of those raising the minimum drinking age in an effort to reduce the number of drunken-driving fatalities among teens. Responding to the strong urging of President Reagan's special commission on drunken driving, lawmakers in Arizona and Nebraska recently raised the drinking age in their states to 21.

Similar action is pending in close to a dozen other states, including here in Massachusetts, where John A. Volpe, a former governor of the commonwealth and later United States Secretary of Transportation, has been providing a lot of push.

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The Bay State Republican, who chaired the 32-member presidential drunken-driving study team, says he is determined to do whatever he can to see that 21 is adopted as a national uniform minimum drinking age. This was a key recommendation of his commission.

Mr. Volpe and about two-thirds of his former colleagues on the panel have joined forces in a privately financed effort focusing largely on ridding the nation's roads of drunken drivers.

The new group, the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, formed in January and will hold its second meeting in May.

It hopes to rally broad-based support for curbing drunken driving through educational and lobbying activities.

Volpe says he recognizes that ''more than raising the legal drinking age is needed.'' But he and others, such as US Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland and the American Automobile Association, say a national uniform drinking age requires immediate attention.

''Younger drivers - those between 16 and 24 - accounted for about 42 percent of the road fatalities in 1982, and the largest number are under 21,'' according to Jim Fell of the National Highway Safety Administration.

The research analyst, who heads the federal agency's fatal-accident reporting program, says that the rate of liquor-related fatalities among drivers aged 16 to 19 is three times that of motorists in the 25- to 44-year-old range. The alcohol-related-fatality record of 29-year-old drivers is only slightly lower - nearly three times that of older motorists.

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The new Nebraska statute, enacted in February, and the Arizona measure, signed into law April 10 by Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D), both raise the drinking age from 19 to 21, bringing to 26 the number of states that have increased their liquor age by at least one year since the late 1960s.

Boosters of a uniform drinking age of 21 cite a 1981 study commissioned by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In 14 states where the age had been increased, there was a significant reduction in fatal crashes involving drivers under 21.

''We found 380 fewer alcohol-related fatal crashes involving drivers under 21 than the preceeding year,'' explains Andrew Hricko of the IIHS. The study concludes that if all states had a minimum drinking age of 21, there would be 730 fewer drunken driving fatal accidents. The total lives saved is bound to be somewhat greater, he says, because in many crashes there is more than one fatality.

In 1981, the year before the presidential commission was formed, 23.6 percent of the 4,884 alcohol-related road deaths involved drivers under 21, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

Opposition to lifting the minimum age for buying, selling, and consuming alcoholic beverages is largely behind-the-scenes, Volpe observes.

He notes that at a March 27 legislative hearing in the Bay State to raise the drinking age, only a couple people voiced dissent.

Liquor interests and certain restaurant owners, who are concerned a 21-year minimum drinking age would cost them business, are especially cool to the idea.

While some lawmakers are concerned that passage of the uniform national drinking age could be politically harmful, a January 1983 Gallup poll showed that 77 percent of those citizens interviewed favored setting the minimum age at 21. That same survey found that of those within the age group affected, 58 percent supported the increase.

In Massachusetts, where the liquor age was boosted from 18 to 20 in 1979, the number of teen-agers in fatal accidents dropped from 65 to 52 the first year and and was down to 22 in 1983. Meanwhile, drunken-driving accidents by 20-year-old drivers decreased from 19 in 1982 to 18 last year.

Although antidrunk driving activists don't view raising the drinking age as a panacea, they are generally encouraged by New Jersey's experience after its drinking age was raised to 21 in January 1983.

Not only were the number of drunken-driver convictions reduced, but liquor-connected road deaths involving young drivers in that age group was also, according to state motor vehicle director Charles Snedecker.

Besides Massachusetts, measures to raise the drinking age are currently under consideration in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. In at least three states the proposal has made it through at least one legislative chamber, and in most the governor has made passage a high priority.

Several proposals to mandate a uniform drinking age of 21 are pending in Congress.

One of these, cosponsored by US Reps. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland, Glenn Anderson (D) of California, James Howard (D) of New Jersey, and William Clinger (R) of Pennsylvania, and others, would withhold 5 percent of a state's share of federal highway funds the first year and 10 percent the second if it fails to bring its drinking age to 21.

Unlike some members of his anti-drunken-driving panel, Volpe voices concern as to the feasibility of that approach. Instead, he favors either waiting a couple years, in hopes that all states will come around to compliance with the presidential commission's recommendations, or passing a measure with built-in penalties that would take effect ''should a state fail to act within two years.''

Only Hawaii, Louisiana, and Vermont now have a minimum drinking age of 18 for all liquors.

Thirteen others have it at 19 for all alcoholic beverages. And five - all of them in New England - have it at 20.

Twenty-nine states have set the drinking age for most types of liquor at 21. Eight of them and the District of Columbia, however, permit permit those as young as 18 or 19 to buy light beer or wine.

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