Remarks at River Dell High School in Oradell, New Jersey

June 20, 1984

Thank you, Mr. Panico, the principal here; Governor Kean; Congresswoman Roukema; and longtime old friend, Don Newcombe -- it's been too long between meetings. But all the others here -- and this very courageous and fine young man [The President was referring to 19-year-old Hector del Valle, who had spoken to the audience about his automobile accident, caused by drinking, which left him permanently paralyzed below the neck.] -- all the others here, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your warm welcome and how impressed I am by what I have seen here today.

Almost 4 years ago when I accepted the nomination of my party to run for the Presidency, I talked about our nation's future. And I remember saying we need a rebirth of the American tradition of leadership at every level of government and in private life as well. The United States of America is unique in world history, because it has a genius for leaders, many leaders on many levels. Well, today, I'm seeing that genius. I've seen real leaders and real leadership.

You in this audience -- parents and teachers, public officials, students, and local groups -- have fused your creativity and concern to deal with a great national problem. And in doing this, you've become part of a movement that has literally swept this country, the movement against drinking and driving.

This is community leadership and community involvement at its best. And I don't mind saying that it isn't Washington that led the way; it was a grassroots movement. Well, so was the Boston Tea Party; so was the abolitionist movement; so was the tax-cutting movement that swept across this country in the past few years. The history of our country is the history of grassroots movements, because Americans know that the purest form of law is one that springs directly from the desire of the people.

You led the way, and in leading, you've changed this country. You've saved lives. And you've shown us what you are doing.

If you'll permit me to tell you a little bit about what we're doing in Washington -- and I know there must be some times when you ask. [Laughter] Two years ago, I appointed a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, and the Commission laid out in irrefutable detail the scope and the extent of the problem.

They told us that alcohol-related automobile accidents are the leading cause of teenage deaths in this country. In fact, in the past few decades, more people have died in alcohol-related auto accidents than in any war since World War II. And the Commission strongly urged Federal action to require a 21-year-old drinking age.

Now I want to talk to you about why the age-21 law is good and why we're supporting it. We know that as you've been told so eloquently here, drinking and driving is a killer. And we know that people aged 18 to 20 are more than twice as likely to be involved in an alcohol-related accident as any other age group. Society has a clear stake in seeing that these young lives, so full of promise, are not ended, or crippled. So, we know what the problem is. We know that society has a stake in solving it, and we know of a solution: raising the drinking age to 21.

Now, this isn't some fad or some experiment. It's a demonstrable success. In States in which the drinking age has been raised, teenage driving fatalities have gone down significantly. Here in New Jersey, with the support of my good friend and yours, your Governor, Tom Kean, you raised the drinking age to 21 in 1983. And you know what happened. You had a 26-percent reduction in nighttime, single-vehicle fatalities among 19- and 20-year-olds in the first year alone.

Well, when you're talking about a 26-percent decrease in the number of teenagers needlessly killed on the highways, then you're talking about something that works. And you're talking about something that's needed.

Last year when the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving recommended that every State raise its drinking age to 21, I was delighted and hopeful. I made speeches to support it. And there was momentum, fed in part by groups such as M.A.D.D., and more States started raising the drinking age. I was delighted, again, because I hoped that the States would, as they should, take this action themselves without Federal orders or interference. Well, in the past 8 or 9 months, 4 States have done it, and in all, 23 States now have age-21 laws.

But now it appears that things have slowed down. Things have stalled. And at this point, less than half the States have the age-21 laws, and more than half don't. And it's led to a kind of a crazy-quilt of different State drinking laws. And that's led to what's been called ``Blood Borders'' -- with teenagers leaving their homes to go to the nearest State with a lower drinking age. And they drink, get drunk, careen on home, and get into trouble of all sorts, including auto accidents.

Now, this slaughter hurts us as a people. It tears up the fabric of society by bringing grief to families, guilt to friends, and loss to the community. And we just can't tolerate this anymore. So, I want you to know that I've decided to support legislation to withhold 5 percent of a State's highway funds if it does not enact the 21-year-old drinking age. The carnage must end, and now.

Now, some feel that my decision is at odds with my philosophical viewpoint that State problems should involve State solutions and it isn't up to a big and overwhelming government in Washington to tell the States what to do. And you're partly right. But the thing is, this problem is much more than a State problem. It's a national tragedy involving transit across State borders. Beyond that, there are some special cases in which overwhelming need can be dealt with by prudent and limited Federal action. And in a case like this, where the problem is so clear-cut and the benefits are so clear-cut, then I have no misgivings about a judicious use of Federal inducements to encourage the States to get moving, raise the drinking age, and save precious lives. The choice remains with the States. I hope they'll act wisely and soon.

Let me remind you there are 23 States that haven't needed this inducement, and New Jersey is a stunning example. Your Governor, Tom Kean, has provided terrific cooperation and leadership so that New Jersey is leading the way on solving the drunk driving problem. [Applause] That applause is for you.

You've raised the penalties against drunk drivers, you've increased arrests and convictions, and you've added tough new legal and financial sanctions against drunk drivers, and you raised the drinking age. And what you got in return is clear and undisputed. Between 1981 and 1983, drunk driving fatalities declined almost 31 percent. You have saved lives. And all of your efforts have qualified your State for almost $800,000 in Alcohol Incentive Grant funds to pay for programs that give your State new tools to combat drunk driving and ensure highway safety. So, you have a lot to be proud of. But the battle isn't over.

I'm going to depart from the main theme here to tell you that Nancy and I discussed what I would be saying here today. And we want you to know that we're aware that the problem we have on our highways isn't just drinking and driving. It's also drinking and drugging.

You know, we know a lot of alcohol-related accidents involve drugs, too. And I know that you're aware -- I'm sure you are -- of Nancy's concern about this. She wanted to be here today, but she's at a big meeting out in Nevada, where she's discussing drug abuse with parents and teachers. I'm rattling around in that big house down there. I don't like it. [Laughter] I know what she's doing is worthwhile.

Our administration has taken many actions to combat drug abuse and drug use among children -- and it occurs to me that drug use is drug abuse, so we might as well just call it that. But we know that no matter how effective we are against the pushers and drug smugglers, it all comes down to you.

And there's one thing I want to say to the students here today, and I speak as one who has lived 73 years -- I don't mind saying it, because the press will never let you forget it. [Laughter] And I guess I've seen a lot. I lived a good part of my adult life in Hollywood and Los Angeles. And I saw a lot of people who were living fast lives. And I just want to tell you -- don't take drugs. Don't abuse your mind and body that way.

You know, I know it's hard for you young people to believe that any of the rest of us remember what it was like or know what you're thinking or feeling. But we do. And one day you're going to be very much surprised to learn how clear your memories will always be of these particular days and how much they mean to you. And, as you were told by the chief, we also remember that when we were sitting where you're sitting, we didn't think anything bad could happen to us. Death was always for someone else -- and all the bad things of that kind.

Now, as your lives go on, you're going to buy a number of automobiles; you're going to trade in a number, get new ones. You've got one set of machinery you can't trade in -- the one inside you. And you may not think about it now, but many of the things that you do now will affect how well you're going to be able to get around in later years, and whether you're going to be able to enjoy life as you're presently enjoying it. And I just have to tell you -- believe me, it is worthwhile to take care of that particular set of machinery. Don't put any sugar in the gastank. Remember to do all the things that keep it fine-tuned. And you'll find that it really pays off.

Now, don't fall for the line that drug use is daring and fun and fearless. It's stupid. It's flirting with addiction, flirting with sickness, and a waste of your own life. Don't fall for that stuff about ``life in the fast lane.'' That's where all the accidents take place.

Many of us who are older have lost friends to one addiction or another. And some of you have lost or will lose friends to drugs, to the addictions that will squeeze them to death, or the impairment that will make them make the wrong move in a fast car. Your generation has lost some of its favorites, like John Belushi and so many others.

I look out, and I see your bright, young faces, and I just want to say: Don't waste the health and the youth that God gave you. Don't take drugs.

But I don't want to end on a sad note. For every person who falls in this country, there are a hundred people there to pick him up. And that's one fact that's at the heart of the American experience. And I want to say to all of you, to M.A.D.D. and to C.A.A.R.D. and the others that are involved in this great national effort against drunk driving, you are all the grassroots. You are the people who change this country and always have. You're the makers of change, the improvers of our national life. And you deserve an awful lot of credit.

And so, let me say to you as I leave here today, I tip my hat. You're terrific. God bless you, and may your good work continue. And just look at who you'll be working for up here in these stands, these young people.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:14 a.m. in the high school gymnasium. He was introduced by Anthony Panico, principal of the school.

Prior to his remarks, the President went to a classroom at the school for a demonstration and briefing on the school's alcohol reaction time simulator program. He then attended a meeting with alcohol awareness officials, including community leaders and representatives of Students Against Drunk Drivers (S.A.D.D.), Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.), and the Committee for Alcohol Awareness in the River Dell Communities (C.A.A.R.D.).

Following the meeting, the President traveled to Hartford, CT.