Come Sunday a lot of 19- and 20-year-olds from the tip of Long Island to Niagara Falls may have to mend their ways. New York is about to become the 32nd state to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages to anyone under 21. Five more states have statutes that will go into effect in the next 10 months, bringing to 37 the number of states where the drinking age minimum will be 21.
The measure, signed into law last June 27 by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, makes New York the 18th state to raise its legal drinking age in the past 23 months and the 14th since July 1984, when President Reagan signed federal legislation empowering the US Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states permitting liquor consumption by anyone under 21.
Six months earlier the Special Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving had recommended what amounts to a uniform drinking age of 21 as a means of curbing liquor-related driving accidents. The panel's studies had concluded that motorists under 21 were especially prone to alcohol-connected traffic fatalities.
Raising the drinking age in New York comes amid ongoing debate over the effectiveness of such measures in quelling drunk driving.
A recently completed study by two researchers at Case Western Reserve University noted a drop from 35-46 percent to 25-30 percent in the proportion of liquor-related road deaths involving 18-year-olds during the two years before and two years after the drinking age was raised to 19 in 1982. In most of the other states whose road-accident records were similarly scrutinized, it was found that the percentage of fatal accidents involving drivers within the age group affected by a raising of the drinking age
either increased slightly or remained ``substantially the same.''
While stopping short of suggesting setting the minimum drinking age at 21 is a bad idea, Profs. Fredric Bolotin and Jack DeSario conclude that moves in that direction ``don't address the total drunk-driving problem.''
``There is no perfect way to measure such things and ours certainly was not perfect,'' concedes Professor Bolotin, explaining that the study was based on percentages rather than numbers of drunk-driver deaths within the age group.
The Bolotin-DeSario analysis involved 15 of the 29 states that increased their drinking ages between 1977 and 1984.
Empire State officials say they are convinced that raising the drinking age there ``will have a very positive effect,'' says John Boffa, an aide to Governor Cuomo's Highway Safety Committee.
``After we raised the drinking age to 19, we found there were 42 percent fewer drunk-driver accidents involving 18-year-olds,'' he points out, adding there was also a 38 percent drop in drunk-driving arrests by motorists under 19.
Under the new statute those buying liquor illegally are subject to fines of up to $100 and a year on probation. Anyone found guilty of selling or giving alcoholic beverages to a person under 21 will face a fine of up to $200 and five days in jail.
Besides helping put the brakes to alcohol-related accidents, the higher drinking age in New York will spare the state the potential loss of $63.3 million in federal highway funds over the two years beginning next Oct. 1.
Under the federal law any state that has a minimum drinking age lower than 21 as of October 1986 could have 5 percent of its federal highway funds held back, and if it is still out of compliance at the beginning of fiscal 1988 another 10 percent would be in jeopardy.
Two years ago when the presidential commission made its pitch for a national drinking age of 21, 31 states had minimums for some or all types of liquor below that age.
Today, including those states whose higher drinking-age laws have not yet taken effect, all but 13 states plus the District of Columbia are, or will be, in compliance by next October.
In Hawaii, Louisiana, and Vermont 18-year-olds can legally have all kinds of alcoholic beverages.
Nineteen is still the minimum drinking age for all liquor in Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
And in Colorado, Ohio, and South Dakota, plus the District of Columbia, certain alcoholic beverages are available to those under 21.
Raising the drinking age in Montana requires a change in the state's constitution, which will be on next November's statewide ballot.
Major efforts to raise the drinking age in most of the dozen other states, as well as in the nation's capital, are being readied for 1986 legislative sessions.