Deterring drunk driving

In the broadest sense, the tough new drunk driving laws that go into effect in Rhode Island tomorrow represent the labors of concerned citizens throughout the United States. The Rhode Island statutes are not the first of their kind, since similar approaches - involving mandatory license revocations and stiff penalties combined with alcoholism rehabilitation programs - are now found in several other states. The significance of the laws is what they represent: public recognition that there can be no compromise on the clear necessity of ending drunken driving on the nation's highways. And that the time for legislative action is now.

Indeed, what until recent years had been a problem dealt with mainly by a few specialists working here and there - highway safety officials, youth workers, temperance reformers, some crusading attorneys and business leaders - has now become a national movement that is encompassing dozens of organizations, thousands of individuals, and is sweeping right into state legislative chambers as well as the White House itself.

There is still much to be done. But there are already many evidences of public action. One of the questions troubling safety experts a decade ago was this one: ''Can a concerned public, seeking solutions to the drinking and driving problem, bring about constructive changes in the face of apathetic legislatures, the political clout of the liquor and brewery industries, and the prevalence of drinking within American society?'' Can it indeed! Just consider the reforms now taking place:

* During the past five years some 19 states have raised their legal drinking ages to prevent teenage drinking and driving. That means that of the 28 states that had lowered legal drinking ages to 18, 19, or 20 in the early 1970s, over two-thirds have now reversed their laws. Public pressures must now be brought to boost the drinking ages in those states still allowing teenage drinking.

* Efforts to stiffen state laws - particularly by imposing mandatory license revocations and some jail sentencing - are now underway in a number of states, in large part because of the success of citizen groups in California who won a tough law earlier this year. The new Rhode Island law is just the latest example. In Massachusetts, a legislative battle has developed over a proposed comprehensive new law.

* Grass-roots citizens and youth groups are being formed to push legislation, monitor judges, combat youth drinking, and picket roadhouses and bars that tolerate problem drinking. In Massachusetts, for example, students at the Wayland High School formed a group called Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD) that has now spread to other states.

* Finally, President Reagan earlier this year fulfilled a longtime recommendation of safety experts by setting up a 30-member national commission to work with state and local governments in devising new solutions to the drunk driving problem.

Still, the challenge of drunk driving in American society is far from over. The accident toll remains far too high. Drafting new laws, as important as they are, is only the smallest part of the task. Nor is the issue one of just ''cracking down'' on offenders in a stern, condemnatory approach. They too, after all, are victims in need of healing.

At the national level, some experts are considering a number of alternatives, ranging from national highway drinking standards (such as in Scandinavian nations, where drunken driving is punished swiftly and firmly), to such devices as warning labels on liquor and beer bottles, to a more concerted national program to provide for alcoholism treatment and rehabilitation programs. The entertainment industry must also be more honest in portraying alcoholism as the tragedy that it is, rather than treating it with humor - or cruel caricature.

But most important, there is a need to break the terrible trap of dependency on drugs themselves, of which alcoholism is only one aspect. The innate God-given freedom that belongs to each individual must be so widely recognized that there is no need for stimulants or resort to the chemical programming inherent in drug usage.

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