If we look at the world map, most countries in the world have a legal drinking age of 18. Comparatively the legal driving age in many countries is as low as 16, and the age of consent is roughly similar at about 16.

Why is the legal drinking age higher than the other two? It seems clear that the other two have much more serious consequences if something goes wrong:

  • Driving: in the event of a crash, the item ruined usually costs tens of thousands of dollars, plus there's a chance of serious injury or death.
  • Age of consent: someone could get pregnant, with lifelong consequences. Plus there's the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

Comparatively getting drunk usually means waking up the next day with a hangover & no permanent damage. But if that's the case, then it should make sense to require a higher age on sex & driving than on drinking.

It seems to me that one explanation is that getting drunk can cause serious damage as well (e.g. the aftermath of this song) but then it also seems like higher age doesn't make this less of a risk, since once someone is drunk they are vulnerable regardless of what their age is.

Has any legislation to alter these recently been passed or proposed by a parliament, political party or prominent NGO and what were the arguments for increasing/retaining the higher drinking age?

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    I would put drinking in with smoking, as both having long term health risks. Can you do something to make it look less like you are asking for opinion based answers?
    – richardb
    May 20, 2020 at 13:34
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    It's not like that in all countries. May 20, 2020 at 14:10
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    I don't know enough to make a real answer, but the drinking age is mostly enforced at the point of sale whereas the age of consent is enforced through criminal prosecution of offenders. It's much simpler to say "Bars and Liquor stores can't sell alcohol to people under 21" than it is to investigate and enforce statutory rape laws for people on the verge of adulthood
    – divibisan
    May 20, 2020 at 14:28
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    And being able to drive is useful, while being able to intoxicate yourself is not.
    – SJuan76
    May 20, 2020 at 15:24
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    I'm not sure if the premise of the question really makes sense because 18 is actually the most common driving age as well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minimum_driving_ages
    – Brian Z
    May 20, 2020 at 15:28

3 Answers 3


If you look at the tables (rather than the map) in the Legal drinking age Wikipedia article, you will notice that many countries actually have restrictions on purchasing alcohol or serving it to under-18 but technically no “drinking age”. It's foolish to think that simply banning a behaviour will make it disappear, that's not how policy is made. On the other hand, banning the sale of alcohol to under-18 can be enforced more easily and presumably has an effect on consumption (it can be overdone however, cf. prohibition).

Age of consent laws are fundamentally different. You cannot erase all sexual behaviour in teenagers either (that's not even their purpose) and that would be exceedingly difficult to enforce. However, it is, in fact, forbidden to sell a lot of sex-related products and media, sexual services, etc. to under-18, even in countries with a lower age of consent. This is more readily analogous to restrictions on the sale of alcohol: in both cases, encouraging or supporting the behaviour is frowned upon but engaging in it isn't forbidden.

In general, modern public health efforts often focus on mitigation rather than prohibition. In the case of alcohol consumption, that's what sales restrictions are. That's also why sale and alcohol assumption is allowed in many places even if you are right that it is dangerous even for older people (incidentally, some places do impose other types of restrictions targeting all adults: inflated prices, designated shops, limited opening hours, etc.). Regarding sexual behaviour, there are countless programmes using education or other interventions to promote safe sex, access to contraception, etc. This underlines the fact that the the issues you mentioned have been identified but that other measures were deemed more appropriate to address them.

Your take on the relative risks of drinking vs. having sex is also debatable: You're much more likely to develop an addiction if you start using a substance in teenage years, with serious lifelong consequences (that's especially true for tobacco but ought to apply to alcohol too). Consuming alcohol also comes with significant short-term risks risks: desinhibition and reduced coordination which causes violence and accidents, effects on learning and social behaviour. Most of what you count as adverse consequences of sex and driving probably involves alcohol too.


I challenge the premise of the question. If we go by a more detailed list, we find legal drinking age varies, and while it's often 18, lower ages aren't exactly rare.

We get the same result if we look at a list of minimum driving ages, where we get the same picture of 18 being the most common, with plenty of countries that have a lower limit.

The order also isn't fixed, with examples like a drinking age of 16/driving age of 18 in Germany, compared to a drinking age of ~21/driving age of ~16 in the US.

Instead of making a general statement of why drinking age is "always" higher than minimum legal driving age, need to look at specific cultures/countries, where it is possible to explain the discrepancies in either direction in historical/cultural/religious context. Big factors are usually the need to drive, and the cultural acceptance of drinking.

There are different age limits for the 3, because they attempt to solve 3 entirely different problems:

Legal drinking age regulates a recreational activity, which can have side effects such as vandalism, car accidents, and liver damage.

Minimum legal driving age regulates the ability to acquire a license which is required for several professions, and may be required simply to live and work independently in some localities.

Age of consent protects minors from sexual exploitation, by making adults who engage in sexual activity with a person younger than the age of consent unable to legally claim that the sexual activity was consensual.


Restrictions like this are predicated on cultural beliefs about competence to make decisions. Age of consent is often set fairly low because historically 14-16 was a common age for people to marry and enter the workforce. That idea only started to lose traction in the 20th century, when public education extended effective parental control to 18, and a later dramatic increase in college attendance kept young people out of the workforce until 21 or 22. Adults may not like the thought of their children having sex, but adults are generally aware that by 16 children are physically, emotionally, and intellectually mature enough to make proper decisions about sex. The same logic works for operating vehicles: older teenagers are mature enough to recognize the risks and responsibilities of controlling two tons of speeding metal.

Drinking age, where it's set, is usually set higher because everyone recognizes that alcohol reduces competency and effective maturity. Someone who drinks is less cognizant of risks and and less responsible, often in proportion to the amount they drink, and so communities try to ensure that one is fully mature before they are allowed to drink without restriction or parental consent. In democratic nations, drinking age is usually the same as voting age (they differ in the US for historical reasons); that age is semi-arbitrarily chosen to represent full admission to adulthood and citizenship.

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    14-16 was not a common age to get married: See eg this very well sourced answer on history.stackexchange history.stackexchange.com/questions/22845/… Early to mid twenties was the most common age for first marriage for the past millennia or so.
    – user141592
    May 21, 2020 at 6:00
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    @Johanna: interesting... I'm going to have to look into that a little deeper. Averages can be tricky in this case, since marriage-age is not a bell curve; more likely a chi-squared or a more general gamma distribution. There's the practical lower limit of puberty, but no particular upper limit short of death, which would mean the distribution is clustered on the low end with a long tail on the high. If the average is (say) 24, the median might be as low as 20, meaning that half of marriages are below that. But I'll admit my numbers were more speculative than they should have been. May 21, 2020 at 6:24
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    Note that puberty also used to happen later a few hundred years ago. The average age has dropped by about 3 years over the past 200 years. It was fairly common to not have the first period until age 15/16. And childbirth is riskier if the woman is not at least 16 or so, because the hips are not fully developed. It has been known for a very long time that having babies at 14 is a bad idea. It's not a modern invention.
    – user141592
    May 21, 2020 at 6:44
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    Age of consent laws were typically enacted as a response to child prostitution. In the 1800s early English feminists publicised stories about child prostitutes and the resulting outrage led to age of consent laws. In Africa and Asia age of consent laws are often a response to outrage about Western men travelling there to abuse children.
    – user141592
    May 21, 2020 at 7:14
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    With regards to marriage: at least in Sweden in agricultural areas it was required for marriage that the couple had their own base including ability to feed themself (and the future childreen.) So mostly they werent that young. Say that the man was in his maybe thirties and she 20-25. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/30/… is a graph showing marriage age in Sweden between 1871 and 2016 May 21, 2020 at 10:30

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