How to arrest drunken driving. Tougher laws against drinking and driving can help, but tougher social attitudes are more effective.

AMERICANS finally seem to be getting the message that drinking and driving are a poor, and dangerous, mix. Congress has passed legislation designed to pressure states to address the problem. And the US Supreme Court has upheld their right to do so. Meanwhile, lawmakers are exacting tougher penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. In California, for example, a death resulting from drunken driving now may warrant charges of murder.

This is all to the good. Legislation and litigation, however, are not the ultimate solutions. What is needed is a basic change of public attitudes about the use of alcohol - and particularly about driving under the influence of it.

Actually, this may be starting to occur. According to a recent New York Times report, officials in several states said that they ``had detected a sudden shift in social attitudes against drunken driving akin to the reduced acceptance of smoking in public.''

The greatest concern is alcohol consumption by youth of driving age, who are major users of the nation's roads. The prime response of the Reagan administration has been to prod states to raise the alcohol purchase-and-consumption age to 21 by threatening to hold back federal highway funds.

Until recently, only four states have failed to adopt such a requirement. Nine others balked, however, at being ``blackmailed'' into age-of-consent laws by a 1984 federal statute that allows withholding a portion of road construction funds from states that fail to adopt a higher minimum drinking age.

South Dakota challenged this congressional legislation in the courts - with support from Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont, and Wyoming.

These states claimed that such a law violated the Constitution's 21st Amendment - which in 1933 repealed Prohibition, giving states broad power over liquor distribution within their borders.

The case reached the Supreme Court. And late last month, the jurists ruled 7 to 2 for the federal regulations. Only Associate Justices William J. Brennan and Sandra Day O'Connor supported the argument that the Constitution preempts such federal penalties against the states.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the court's majority, said ``Congress found that differing drinking ages in the states created particular incentives for young persons to combine their desire to drink with their ability to drive, and that this interstate problem required a national solution.

``The means [Congress] chose to address this dangerous situation were reasonably calculated to advance the general welfare,'' Mr. Rehnquist added. This ruling is praised by the insurance industry, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other groups eager to deal with the problem.

It came in the wake of a host of new state laws designed to curb highway-related deaths. Federal statistics indicate that about half of the 44,000 annual auto fatalities involve the use of alcohol.

Are get-tough-on-drunk-drivers laws enough to substantially curb alcohol-related fatalities and death?

Some experts say it is not the existence of laws but the willingness to enforce them that is the key to success. And a new study by Boston University researchers, published in the American Journal of Public Health, concludes that ``increased drunk driving penalties, even when coupled with judicial measures to increase convictions, did not initiate sustained drunk driving and fatal crash reductions.''

Those who conducted the survey in New England also stressed that crack-down laws in Maine and Massachusetts did little to convince motorists that they risked any real chance of being caught if they drove when intoxicated.

This is discouraging. And just as alarming is a new survey by the Siena College Research Institute in New York. The institute found that since New York State raised the age for buying alcohol to 21 last year, students are drinking more ``in the closet,'' attending fewer campus functions, and using false IDs to drink off campus.

One administrator suggests that since drinking is still so prevalent, it behooves educators to place more emphasis on ``responsible drinking behaviors'' that will discourage students from finding ways from getting around the law.

This, too, is troublesome.

Why is a society that is apparently alert to the deleterious effects of alcohol consumption - and particularly sensitive to the dangers of drinking and driving by teen-agers - only willing to recommend moderation and not abstinence?

Is the rejection of liquor something so impractical or so pious that it is left mainly to religious purists?

Obviously, parents and other adults need to set a strong example for the younger generation. If alcohol consumption destroys lives, ruins families and careers, and often leads at least indirectly to crime and social upheaval, is it not good sense to reject it?

The United States has embarked on a national campaign to say ``no'' to drugs. We should also orchestrate the message to say ``no'' to liquor. Tough state laws and Supreme Court edicts won't mean much until the public attitude on drinking is drastically changed.

A Thursday column

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