STATE—Lowering the drinking age to 18 is not a popular idea among New Jersey residents. According to a recent survey conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind and co-sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ), just 18 percent of New Jerseyans support the idea of lowering the drinking age to 18, while 76 percent favor leaving the legal age at 21. The survey was undertaken in response to the recently rekindled debate over the legal drinking age.
The controversy started when a number of university presidents around the country put forward a petition known as the Amethyst Initiative, calling for “dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.”
Few differences emerged in demographic groups: men and women, liberals and conservatives, registered and unregistered voters and north and south Jerseyans all agreed by similar margins. Even younger respondents were not significantly more likely to favor lowering the drinking age than older residents. Nor were parents with children in school or in college significantly different than others in their preference to leave the drinking age at 21. However, parents with children in elementary school were most supportive of maintaining the current legal drinking age of 21 (83%-9%) while parents of college students were least supportive (67%-30%).
The question was asked the same way of all respondents. But, at random, respondents were given one of three different introductions. One group was told that university presidents suggested lowering the drinking age. Another group was told that some prevention organizations, like the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, oppose any change. A third group was simply told that there is a current debate. There were no differences among the groups in their answers to the question, no matter which introduction they received.
“While some university students might object to the law and even skirt the law, there is clearly a broad consensus among the rest of the New Jersey community that the law should stand,” said Peter Woolley, a political scientist Fairleigh Dickinson University and director of the poll. “Public policy questions often leave a significant number of people unsure of their preferences, but on this question there is an unusually small percentage of people who are undecided,” Woolley added. Only 5 percent of respondents said they were unsure or had mixed feelings.
“This study brings light to the fact that many New Jersey residents share the concerns of the PDFNJ and the NJ21 Coalition,” explained Angelo Valente, executive director of PDFNJ, which opposes a change in the law. Together with the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety (HTS) and the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, PDFNJ organized the NJ21 Coalition in response to the Amethyst Initiative. The coalition comprises state government, law enforcement and nonprofit agencies opposed to lowering the drinking age.
“We are extremely concerned that by lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, fatalities will increase and other alcohol-related situations, including binge drinking, date rape and violent behavior will become more prevalent on our college campuses,” Valente said. “Approximately 50 percent of New Jersey high school seniors reach the age of 18 before graduation. If the drinking age is lowered, we will certainly see additional serious issues arise, not only on college campuses, but at high schools throughout the state.”
HTS Director Pam Fischer noted that HTS also worked with Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind this past spring on a survey of driving behaviors. According to the results of that poll, 68 percent of New Jersey drivers indicated that drunk driving is the number-one priority when asked what laws they believe police officers should spend more time enforcing. That number is up 5 percentage points from the previous year.
“New Jerseyans clearly recognize the tragic consequences of drunk driving, and want both themselves and their families to remain safe behind the wheel,” Fischer said. “We know that drunk-driving fatalities among young people have dropped significantly since the legal drinking age was raised to 21. Any change to a law that clearly is saving lives would be irresponsible and go against what New Jerseyans have told us is a very real concern.”
Fischer added that drunk-driving fatalities among young people went from 45 in 1983, when the minimum legal drinking age was changed to 21, to 10 in 2007. That number has remained constant since 2005.
Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control Director Jerry Fischer said “citizens of New Jersey understand the severe consequences that can result from lowering the drinking age. College presidents who endorse changing the age need to look beyond the borders of their colleges and see how the community as a whole would be impacted. He added that “lowering the drinking age to 18 would make alcohol more readily available to young people, not just on college campuses, but in the community at large, undermining efforts by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control to keep young people from binge drinking, drinking and driving, and the myriad other potentially fatal consequences of underage drinking.”
The members of the NJ21 Coalition are: New Jersey Office of the Attorney General; New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety; New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control; New Jersey State Police; New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Addiction Services; New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission; Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey; MADD; New Jersey State Safety Council; New Jersey Police Traffic Officers’ Association; Sheriffs’ Association of New Jersey; New Jersey Prevention Network; Childhood Drinking (CD) Coalition; New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police; HERO Campaign; Rowan University; NJPTA; and the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
The Fairleigh Dickinson University survey of 1,064 New Jersey residents statewide was conducted by telephone from September 4 through September 8 and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.
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