The United States may be close to having a new law that would give states a considerable push toward raising their minimum drinking age to 21, if they have not already done so. (Twenty-six have a lower minimum age.) This would be expected to reduce significantly the national drunken driver problem, since a disproportionate percentage of drunken drivers now are under 21.
The proposal would withhold 15 percent of sorely needed federal highway funds over a two-year period from states that do not have a minimum drinking age of 21 . What has brought the measure near the brink of approval by the US Senate is last week's welcome decision by President Reagan to support it, following his initial opposition. Earlier this month it was approved by the House of Representatives.
However, there is no certainty yet that the Senate will approve the measure, although it clearly should. The bill is under attack from three directions: conservatives, mostly Republicans, who say individual states should make their own decisions; other senators, who say the 15 percent sanction is too weak and should be strengthened; and the liquor and restaurant industries, which are working hard behind the scenes to defeat the bill.
Conservatives should reflect on the serious problems that exist throughout the US near the borders of states with different age limits. They might note also that most states that considered raising their drinking age minimum to 21 this year did not do so. If there is to be action in the near future, a federal prod, such as this measure, evidently is required.
Those who would toughen the sanctions should realize that whereas their position would be preferable under ideal circumstances, if a major toughening were pushed at this moment it could result in the scuttling of the entire bill. Now is the time to get behind the current proposal, with little if any change.
The liquor and restaurant industries ought to show responsibility in this issue. In working behind the scenes to try to defeat the measure, both suggest an unpardonable callousness to the fatalities and human suffering caused by young drunken drivers.
At present supporters of the measure are building their coalition and racing against time. Their principal concern is that the lobbying pressure of the liquor and restaurant industries could cause some current backers of the bill to cave in and turn away. Strong support from the Reagan administration is needed now to persuade wavering Republicans to support the measure and enable it to be considered and approved promptly.