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Why Candice Lightner isn’t helping to prevent drunk driving

Written by Stefan Muller Apr 10, 2008

On Monday morning, NYRA’s executive director, Alex Koroknay-Palicz, appeared on Fox News’s Mike and Juliet Show. Joining him in a panel discussion of the drinking age was Candice Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Since most of the panel was unreceptive to the idea of a lower drinking age, Alex broached discussion of the fact that members of the military who are under 21 cannot drink. Ms. Lightner responded by saying:

It [the brain of 18-year-olds] isn’t developed, and that’s exactly why the draft age is 18, because these kids are malleable. They will follow the leader, they don’t think for themselves and they are the last ones I want to say ‘here’s a gun, and here’s a beer.’  They are not adults; that’s why they’re in the military. They are not adults.” 

Not only is this comment insensitive to the members of the military who are mature enough for the discipline and responsibility they must take on, and insensitive to the many 18- to 21-year-olds who could be forced to go overseas and potentially die if the draft were to be reinstated, but it is also self-contradictory. MADD, and Lightner herself, have been making us think for years that teenagers are deliberately irresponsible with alcohol and that, if given the freedom to drink, would disregard the sensibilities imparted upon them and use the freedom recklessly. Now we are to believe that people under 21 will, in fact, do whatever they are told? In typical fashion, NYRA’s opponents are having us believe that teenagers are at once rebellious and malleable, at once recklessly independent and firmly under the thumbs of their parents and elders. 

Whether or not one agrees with the draft or with the military enlistment age of 18, America considers 18-year-olds mature enough to die for their country, voluntarily or involuntarily, and they do so while suffering criticisms of their adulthood and their maturity like Ms. Lightner’s. In addition, whether or not one agrees with the current conflicts engaging the US military, everyone should realize it is both detrimental and inaccurate to make such insinuations about those involved in these conflicts who are willing to make so many sacrificies. However, Ms. Lightner’s comments are hardly the first such insult to these members of the military and others their age who take on enormous responsibility but are not granted the respect and privileges they deserve in return, including the privilege to responsibly enjoy an alcoholic beverage when finished with their work. Those who serve in the military provide just one set of evidence that people under 21 are capable of full adult maturity and responsibility. Many others are available by looking at the vast responsibilities taken on by this age group in homes, institutions of higher learning and the work force. What leads young people of any specific age to be irresponsible with alcohol is the social construct around alcohol that makes it a forbidden fruit until age 21 and a reasonable indulgence after that age, a social construct MADD seeks to perpetuate at all costs. This mentality makes it nearly impossible to teach young people to drink responsibly, and makes it likely that one’s first drink will be in a social and somewhat reckless setting at best and an underground and secretive one at worst. For more information, of course, see our website at http://www.youthrights.org/drinkingage.php. 

If MADD, as its name suggests, truly wants to prevent drunk driving, which is undoubtedly a noble goal, they are barking up the wrong tree in seeking to simply prevent access to alcohol by those under 21. This doesn’t prevent binge drinking or drunk driving by those over 21, which is still shockingly rampant in America, and is often ineffective in preventing these ills in those under 21, who can and do find ways around the law. Instead, MADD should turn to one of its original goals which still graces its logo, education. Alcohol responsibility, and not alcohol abstinence, should be taught to those younger than 21, and the drinking age should be lowered to an age considered reasonable by the rest of the civilized world. The message coming out of MADD should be that drunk driving at any age is absolutely unacceptable. As soon as this becomes MADD’s sole message and mission, I will support them wholeheartedly and unashamedly. However, the witch hunt against those supporting a lower drinking age simply perpetuates age discrimination and hurts the much-needed goal of eliminating drunk driving both by distracting MADD from its original mission and by preventing real alcohol responsibility. 

 

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