In the 1950’s there was a television show called “This is Your Life” where a guest would unknowingly be brought onto the show and surprised with special guest appearances as the person is given a glimpse into his or her life from another person’s perspective. Last week, an important milestone passed—unnoticed by many but still important—30 years ago President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) that requires states to make 21 as the minimum age for purchasing or public possessing alcohol. So, in light of that historic moment: NMDAA….This is Your Life. And what a life it has been thus far, ending blood borders, saving tens of thousands of young lives, and creating healthier communities.
In the early 1980s, 23 states had a minimum drinking age of 21 and because of the difference of the minimum drinking age laws across the country, many states were seeing “blood borders.” Candace Lightner, Founder of MADD and a significant advocate for the passage of NMDAA described blood borders this way:
Because the states were like a checkerboard of drinking ages, one state would be 18, one would be 19, one might be 20, one might be 21, young people would cross over the borders to go to a state with a lower drinking age law and unfortunately crash on the way back. This was really a terrible problem. . . . . 
Teens were literally dying to get their alcohol. Clearly a comprehensive approach was needed. On April 14, 1982, President Reagan issued Executive Order 12358, establishing the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. The Commission’s purpose was to examine the issue of drunk driving and make appropriate recommendations to combat this deadly topic. A year later, the Commission issued a final report with a number of recommendations. Bill Bronrott noted that:
In that final report, they made the 21 Uniform Minimum drinking age law its number one priority. Not just for states to individually pass, but to pass federal legislation to require the states to do this as a condition of receiving their full allotment of federal highway dollars. The motion was made by a Republican member of the commission who understood that in order to erase those blood borders and bring down the deaths, we had to do this using that approach….Within a year, the bill passed. 
National Minimum Drinking Age Act is Signed into Law
On July 17, 1984, at approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, President Reagan addressed everyone in the White House Rose Garden who were present to watch him sign the NMDAA. A strong supporter of “states’ rights,” in this situation, President Reagan declared:
This problem is bigger than the individual States. It’s a grave national problem, and it touches all our lives. With the problem so clear-cut and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power. I’m convinced that it will help persuade State legislators to act in the national interest to save our children’s lives, by raising the drinking age to 21 across the country.
While standing on the dais near President Reagan, Candace Lightner remembered one moment of the bill signing this way:
He looked up at me and gives me this sly little look “and he’s holding the pen and he kind of smiled and he said hmmm…like should I sign or not, something like that, and I looked at him and I said: ‘Mr. President, if you don’t sign, I will.’ And he broke out laughing, everybody up there heard it and started laughing and he did, he signed it and then he handed me the pen.
Within a few years after President Reagan signed the bill, every state passed legislation that complied with the law.
The Effect of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act
Occasionally there are questions raised along with a push to reduce the age limit. Thus far, those efforts have failed. They have failed because of the research and because of the science.
The research demonstrates the significant life saving impact the law has had in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that the 21-year-old minimum-drinking-age laws have reduced alcohol traffic fatalities by 13 percent and have saved an estimated 29,292 lives since 1975. In 2012 alone, minimum-drinking-age laws saved an estimated 525 lives.
Additionally, since the passage of NMDAA, the scientific evidence supports its continuation. Thanks to technological advances involving brain scans, we now know that even at 21 the brain is still developing. There are important changes occurring in brain development during the teenage years. Alcohol retards these changes, and has both short- and long-term effects, including damage to:
- Learning capabilities
- Decision–making process, and
- Reasoning ability
A common challenge raised is that lower drinking ages are allowed in Europe and they have fewer alcohol problems, thus the United States should follow the European example. However, the opposite is true. A higher percentage of high school students reported getting drunk in Europe than in the States and:
“Europe has the highest per capita of alcohol use, the highest percentage of deaths attributed to alcohol, the highest burden of disease related to alcohol, and the highest prevalence of alcohol dependence.”
It is also noteworthy that after New Zealand reduced its minimum drinking age from 20 to 18, there was a significant increase in alcohol-related crashes among 15-19 year olds. The increase in drinking by those 18-19 years old was followed by an increase by 16-17 years old even though for the younger ages it was still illegal. Lowering the minimum drinking age also impacts those who are even younger.
The Positive Impact
The NMDAA has saved tens of thousands of lives, and that’s just examining traffic crashes. When asked about its impact, Mr. Bronrott stated:
It [NMDAA] plays out more broadly and you would hear this from folks from the National Institutes of Health or from the Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention when you talk about the positive effects of the higher uniform drinking age law on reducing other health and community issues; crime, violence, early onset of alcoholism, and the sort of downward spiral of associated issues that affect people’s lives. So it has always been about saving lives but it is also about quality of life. Traffic crashes is just one piece of the challenge when you talk about teens and drinking and how that can affect a young person’s life throughout their adulthood. So there have been tremendous benefits across the spectrum that have helped feed into not only safer communities but healthier communities. 
Making a Difference and Saving Lives
Thirty years ago, forward-thinking leaders looked at an issue and pushed for a controversial solution, a solution that made common sense. We now know that the solution developed 30 years ago ended blood borders, saved tens of thousands of lives and created healthier communities. Fortunately, this law is not done yet. It has more lives to save and more communities to improve. This is one law that keeps moving forward; doing the work it was designed for, and saving lives.
Bill Bronrott talks about the benefits of the Minimum Drinking Age Act
 Conversation with Candace Lightner with the Traffic Safety Guy for a future Highway to Safety podcast episode, July 17, 2014.  Bill Bronrott is the Deputy Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Mr. Bronrott began his career as a top aide to U.S. Congressman Michael D. Barnes of Maryland. During that time on Capitol Hill, Mr. Bronrott helped launch the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) movement and the war on drunk driving.  Conversation with Bill Bronrott with the Traffic Safety Guy for a future Highway to Safety podcast episode, July 17, 2014.  Traffic Safety Facts, Young Drivers; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, April 2014. DOT HS 812 019. William DeJong, & Jason Blanchette, Case Closed: Research Evidence on the Positive Public Health Impact of the Age 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age in the United States. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, February 2014. p. 111.  Conversation with Bill Bronrott with the Traffic Safety Guy for a future Highway to Safety podcast episode, July 17, 2014.