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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

Not MADD enough

POSSIBLY as many as 20,000 people are alive today because the minimum drinking age was raised 20 years ago to age 21. That's worth celebrating, but Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants more done to keep alcohol out of kids' hands. That's not unreasonable.

The way the experts figure out how many lives are saved is always a curiosity, so we'll have to take their word for it. But it is obvious that it made a difference, when in July, 1984, President Reagan signed a federal law to make 21 the national minimum drinking age, erasing the so-called "bloody borders" between states that had different legal drinking ages.

This is not, however, the time to pat ourselves on the back. The uniform minimum age for drinking has reduced the number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol and young people between the ages of 15 to 20. But the number of alcohol-related deaths involving teenagers remains high. Annually, teenage drinking is blamed for more than 6,000 people killed in traffic accidents, homicides, and suicides. In 2002, more than 2,400 of those deaths were traffic fatalities.

It's no wonder, then, that MADD wants Congress to help craft more solutions to fight illegal underage drinking. Here's one big argument that should convince Congress: Teenage drinking costs the nation $53 billion a year.

MADD wants a single federal agency to oversee underage drinking issues and to reinforce such laws as the one that bans open alcoholic beverage containers in vehicles. The group also wants federal resources to prevent adults from putting alcohol into youths' hands. Too many grown-ups either still don't understand or don't care that the minimum drinking age is 21, not 18 or younger.

Unfortunately, too many parents think it's OK to provide their teenagers alcohol at home. It is not OK. The law applies to parents, too.

Underage drinking demands much attention. More than 40 percent of all traffic accidents are blamed on alcohol. Government aid is urgently needed. If you doubt that, consider this: Drunken drivers will kill more Americans this year than the war in Iraq.

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