First some good news, then some bad.
    Since the federal government forced all 50 states to change their legal drinking ages to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funding, fatalities related to drunken driving among that age group have indeed gone down. Other negative behaviors, however, have skyrocketed.
    The number of college-age people who literally drank themselves to death almost doubled between 1999 and 2005, most of them on Saturdays and Sundays. That sad reality speaks to the binge drinking that college administrators confess is rampant on many of our nation’s campuses. The Associated Press says that research indicates nearly half of college students report at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. In addition, many of our students, perhaps as many as half a million according to the AP, are injured each year in accidents related to alcohol consumption, and about 1,700 die in such accidents. We have all read news accounts of drunken college students falling off balconies and other such senseless injuries and deaths.
    Two more young women were added to those grim statistics earlier this month when they were struck by a student athlete driving an SUV which ran off a Chapel Hill street. The women were hospitalized with broken bones and other serious injuries, but they are — blessedly — expected to recover. The tennis star faces DWI charges and a vastly changed educational — perhaps even professional — future.
    The 2006 allegations of rape against Duke lacrosse players were fueled by alcohol use among all parties involved. The rape allegations turned out to be false, but no one disputed the drinking.
    Bad news all the way around.
    As the mother of three young adults, each now over 21, I have seen a number of young people struggle with such issues, which is why I welcome news about the Amethyst Initiative. Under that banner, almost 100 college presidents from all across our country are calling for “an informed and dispassionate debate” on the issue of underage drinking. These educators come from some of our most respected institutions — Duke, Dartmouth, Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon, Morehouse and Ohio State among them, and they are on the front lines of this issue and see the situation first hand.
    The Amethyst Initiative makes a number of thought-provoking points. It says our current laws actually encourage binge drinking by pushing the issue into hiding. A widespread practice among underage students called “pre-gaming” encourages them to drink as much as possible before they go out since once they are out, they do not want to be caught with alcohol in public. John McCardell, a former president of Middlebury College in Vermont started the initiative. He says that our drinking age is “a law that is routinely evaded. It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe it is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.” The statement released by the group addressed the lawbreaking aspect of the problem this way: By choosing to use alcohol illegally and “by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.” What does that say about their future respect for the law or about our tolerance for their lawbreaking behavior?
    {mosimage}Duke President Richard Brodhead writes that the 21-year-old drinking age “pushes drinking into hiding, heightening its risks.” It also prevents school officials “from addressing drinking with students as an issue of responsible choice” for fear of appearing to condone illegal activity.
    The statement also addresses an issue we see in our own community. Our laws allow our citizens who are at least 18-years-old to make all adult decisions except one. They can sign legal documents, take out loans, get married, vote, join the military and put themselves in harm’s way in defense of our nation, but they “are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.”
    Not everyone agrees with the Amethyst Initiative’s call for a national conversation.
    Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, reacted strongly. A spokesman says changing our nation’s drinking laws will lead to more highway fatalities. Other opponents accuse the presidents of wanting to avoid the problem by “defining it out of existence,” according to Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health.
    I wish I had the wisdom to solve this painful social issue which both sides of the debate agree is a huge problem on our nation’s campuses. Prohibition did not work in the 1920s, and our current drinking age is not doing all we want it to do either. Would more stringent penalties for drunken driving — say, loss of driving privileges for five years or more — be enough to keep younger drinkers off our roads?
    Speaking like a true academician, William Trout, the president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., puts it this way. “I’m not sure where the dialogue will lead, but it’s an important topic to American families and it deserves a straightforward dialogue.”
    It is hard to argue with that.
    How can we address a problem if we are unwilling to discuss it?

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