In 1984 the legal drinking age in the U.S. was raised from 18 to 21 in all 50 states. That was in response to the number of drunk driving fatalities involving young people nationwide.  But as VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, that has not stopped young people from drinking.

Police Radio - "Yeah they are looking back at you guys pretty hard."

Friday night, in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and the Alcohol Unit of the Montgomery County Police Department is running an undercover operation looking for underage drinkers.

Police radio: "Gary, did all this beer go in the trunk?" Reply: "Yes all of it did, it is probably a good stop."

The legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21. Officer Bill Morrison says that has not deterred many young people from drinking.  He says two-thirds of the 12 to 15 drinking and driving fatalities in Montgomery County every year involve underage drinking. "They feel invincible. They go out there and they begin drinking and they get what I call 'beer muscles.'  And they think they can do things that they normally wouldn't do.  And off they go.  And unfortunately many of them get behind the wheel and attempt to drive down the road."

An undercover officer scouting on the roof of a beer and wine store observed three young men in a car carrying a large quantity of beer out of the store.

Officer Morrison says, "So, what we have is, the passenger is 21, the two other gentlemen are both underage.  They all went in together and they all helped carry out the beer.  The 21-year-old admitted that they were all going back to his house to drink.  As a result all three of them will get citations."

An officer tells the youths, "You both carried out alcohol, you are in possession of alcohol."

Two of the men are 20 years old and were charged with possessing alcohol, a $500 fine.  The 21-year-old passenger, who police say bought the beer, is charged with furnishing alcohol to someone under 21, a $1,000 fine. 

The legal age of majority in the U.S. is 18.  Setting the drinking age at 21 has its share of critics.  Some argue that setting the age at 21 has created an underground drinking culture that fosters alcohol abuse.  They argue that teaching young people to use alcohol responsibly out in the open would be a better approach. 

Meg Baker, program director for a Montgomery County funded program called Drawing the Line on Under 21 Alcohol Use, disagrees. "Listening to the treatment folks, by the time they are caught, often times have been drinking two, or three, or four, or five years prior to that.  And we know that youngsters that drink prior to age 15 are more likely to have alcohol issues as an adult than had they just waited until they are a little older."

Officer Morrison agrees.  He regularly sees the many problems alcohol creates.

"We are talking about vandalism, we are talking about rape, we are talking about destruction of property, we are talking about theft.  All those calls for service are alcohol related.  Now, the amount of teenagers involved in this, this is about two-thirds of your calls for service on Friday and Saturday night."

Officer: "Take a deep breath, and blow, blow."
Suspect: "I'll blow it again."
Officer: "I'll Take you to jail, I think that is a better idea"
Suspect: "No, I'll blow it again. I mean, I am trying my best."
Officer: "You are not.  You are playing games with me."

There are about 17,000 drunk driving fatalities a year in the U.S., a figure that has risen slightly in the past couple of years.  Montgomery County has one of the first police forces in the country to deploy a full time alcohol enforcement unit.  Its officers have trained other officers in different states around the country in the hope that one day that number will decline.