What can be done to defuse the potentially tragic combination of teen-agers, cars, and alcohol?
That was the question over which a group of high school students and adults anguished after a series of fatal alcohol-related auto accidents involving teen-agers stunned this small college community in the winter of 1980-81.
Their highly successful answer has been Drive-A-Teen, a program that combines an emergency ride service for teens stranded in situations involving alcohol and an active alcohol-awareness organization for high school students.
Local education officials credit Drive-A-Teen with not only raising alcohol awareness among the town's teens, but in the community as a whole.
Drive-A-Teen derives its name from the innovative weekend ride service that began operating in May 1981. The service, manned by parent volunteers, provides safe, confidential rides home for teen-agers involved in potentially hazardous alcohol-related circumstances.
Two of the most common situations that prompt teens to call the Drive-A-Teen ride service are when a teen decides it would be unsafe for him to drive and when one realizes that the person with whom he is riding has been drinking.
''The service has been used on the average between four and six times a weekend since its inception,'' said Marci McFarland, a health educator in the Chapel Hill public schools and adviser to the student Drive-A-Teen organization.
But the effects of Drive-A-Teen extend far beyond the statistics on its use, Miss McFarland said.
The mere awareness of the program's existence serves as a reminder of the ill effects of drinking. Also, students have been known to tell a driver who has been drinking to hand over his keys to a nondrinker, lest they call the service.
Drive-A-Teen has drawn criticism from some who claim that the ride service is sending the signal to teen-agers to live it up and parents will bail them out.
Not true, said Dr. Bob Senior, a parent volunteer who was instrumental in establishing Drive-A-Teen. ''The vast majority of kids, I'd say 95 percent, who call Drive-A-Teen are those who otherwise would have had to ride home with an unsafe driver,'' Dr. Senior said.
The ride program has sent positive ripples through the community. ''The Drive-A-Teen program has affected every adult who has come into contact with it, '' Miss McFarland said.
''The parents have talked about changing their attitudes toward drinking and especially drinking and driving,'' she said.
The ride service concept has spread across the Eastern Seaboard. According to Susan Spalt, Drive-A-Teen coordinator, numerous towns and school systems have contacted her at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Offices for information about Drive-A-Teen.
The effectiveness of such a ride service was recognized recently by a district court judge in Amherst, Mass. The judge suspended the sentence of members of a University of Massachusetts fraternity convicted of selling alcohol to minors in an agreement that the fraternity set up and operate an emergency ride service for the citizens of Amherst.
In addition to the ride service in Chapel Hill, the student organization for alcohol awareness is also playing a major role in combating teen-age alcohol use and abuse.
Administrators at Chapel Hill High School admit that alcohol use is widespread among its students, which is partly a reflection of the town's university, sometimes called the ''Beer Drinking Capital of the World.''
''There is a lot of school spirit at Chapel Hill High,'' Miss McFarland said. ''But a lot of students derive their identity from the university. It has a tremendous impact.''
The student Drive-A-Teen organization, while not condoning drinking, attempts to inform students on the facts about alcohol use and the effects of drinking and driving.
''We don't support drinking, but in a college town you have to face the fact that some people are going to drink,'' explained David Cashwell, a high school senior and co-president of the Drive-A-Teen student organization.
''We help to develop responsible decisionmaking and responsible attitudes about drinking, rather than to ignore the problem,'' he said.
Students of the 50-member organization distribute business cards with the phone number of the Drive-A-Teen ride service and literature on drinking. Members are also trained to be peer counselors who go into junior high school health classes and high school driver education classes to present the facts about alcohol in a nonthreatening manner.
''The kids in junior high will be more open with us than with their teacher, an adult,'' said Jenny Link, a member of the student Drive-A-Teen organization. ''The discussions are really good.''
The students are also working with local law enforcement agencies and legal officials to explore the feasibility and appropriateness of alternative sentences for teen-agers charged with alcohol-related offenses.
Other projects of the organization include sponsoring alcohol-free social functions, speaking to civic groups, and fund raising.
The student organization has helped bring the problems of alcohol use into the open for mature, informed discussion.
''Talking about the problems of drinking now will enable the students to make more responsible decisions when they do come of age,'' Miss McFarland said.