WASHINGTON -- President Reagan, in a switch of position, will support legislation to force the states to raise their minimum drinking age to 21, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced Wednesday.
The legislation -- attached to a federal highway bill -- would give states two years to set drinking ages of 21. If states do not, 5 percent of their federal highway funds would be cut the first year and 10 percent would be cut the next year.
The measure was opposed by the administration when it was approved by the House a week ago. But Mrs. Dole and Sen Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said they persuaded Reagan to change his mind. With Reagan's support now, it is likely to be passed within the next few weeks by the Republican-led Senate.
On Tuesday, Tennessee became the 24th state in the nation to increase its legal drinking age for all alcoholic beverages to 21. Ten states have a minimum drinking age of 21 for hard liquor, but permit younger persons to buy wine and beer.
'Today I am announcing administration support for legislation to withhold 5 percent of highway funds to states that do not raise the drinking age to 21,' Mrs. Dole told a news conference on the Capitol steps.
She was joined by Lugar, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Rep. James Howard, D-N.J., and leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
'Because of the work of groups like MADD and the concern of hundreds of high school organizations called SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk), Secretary Dole and I were able to convince the president to back this legislation,' Lugar said.
'I will work as hard as I can to obtain a bipartisan majority in the Senate for this legislation. I am confident we will be successful,' Lugar said.
Mrs. Dole noted that decisions such as the minimum drinking age 'traditionally have been left to the states.' While many states have raised their drinking age, 19 states failed this year to increase the minimum age to 21.
'We must increase the drinking age to 21 in all of our states to protect all of our people,' Mrs. Dole said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that at least 1,250 lives could be saved annually if all state raised the drinking age to 21.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, sponsor of the measure in the Senate, said, 'Young people in my state of New Jersey drive to New York to drink and then try to drive home -- too many do not make it. This isn't a matter of states' rights -- it's a matter of saving lives.'
Candy Lightner, founder of MADD, said nearly 50 percent of all fatal highway crashes involving 18- to 20-year-old drivers are alcohol related.