`NOTHING is as terrible as collisions that occur when an adult under the influence gets behind the steering wheel with a child in the car.''
With this unequivocal statement, President Clinton signed a proclamation designating December as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.
The president, whose stepfather happened to be an alcoholic, predicted that according to statistics, 18,000 people will die this year in alcohol-related crashes, or one every half hour - and more than 1 million people will be injured, or one every 26 seconds. In the face of these predictions, what responsible driver would accept the risk of setting out on the road with a child - and impaired skills? The sobering answer is: All too many drinkers - their judgment impaired - will take a chance.
The casualty figures have declined by 30 percent in the past 10 years. But the death of one child (or adult) attributable to drinking and driving is unacceptable - a true ``atrocity,'' to use the president's word.
The demeaning notion - prevailing from the college fraternity to the office party - that a good time cannot be had without alcoholic priming has not yet received the concerted social criticism that has put smoking, for instance, so emphatically out of favor.
But awareness is growing. ``We used to think that drinkers and smokers only harmed themselves,'' Dr. Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health observed, commenting on a new study of drinking on 140 college campuses.
The report, which indicates that half the men students and 39 percent of the women practice binge drinking (four or five drinks at a time), links alcohol to most cases of date rape as well as physical assault and destruction of property on campus.
As with drinking and driving, the message here is that so-called social drinking constitutes a profoundly antisocial act. How many crimes of violence, how many cases of domestic battering must be counted before the lesson sinks in?
It is a good strategy to combat the seasonal confusion of heavy partying with true celebrating, as the president's proclamation does. But the time has come to combat abusive drinking year-round, measuring the pain that is inflicted on loved ones by those ``feeling no pain,'' until the alcohol culture becomes as unpopular as the tobacco culture is today.