Highway safety officials appear to be succeeding in their once lonely crusade to clear the nation's roads of a major menace - young drunken drivers.
* Within the past seven years, 20 states have raised their minimum drinking ages by one to three years.
* In their 1983 legislative sessions, at least 26 states will consider proposals to take liquor out of the hands of 18-, 19-, or 20-year-olds.
While none of these measures is assured of passage, support is building, with federal officials beginning to throw their weight behind such efforts.
Much of the momentum stems from publicity about the high number of young drivers involved in liquor-related traffic deaths. Last year, for example, 35 percent of the nation's more than 25,000 fatalities linked to drunken drivers involved people between the ages of 16 and 24. And studies show that liquor-related accidents among young drivers have decreased, sometimes dramatically, in states where the legal drinking age has been raised.
An analysis by the Highway Safety Institute of the University of Michigan, for instance, found that there were 1,100 fewer alcohol-related crashes and 20 percent fewer vehicular deaths among 18-to-20-year-olds during the first year after that state returned its minimum drinking age back to 21.
Raising the drinking age to 21 ''could save thousands of young lives,'' says Jim Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.Earlier this year, he placed his agency squarely behind such a move.
Two Cabinet members - Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis and Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker - have urged making 21 the minimum legal drinking age in all states.
This move is embraced in the panel's interim recommendations of the special commission on drunken driving, announced Dec. 13. It is virtually certain to be part of the final report due early in 1983.
Meanwhile, several members of Congress, including Rep. Michael Barnes (D) of Maryland and Rep. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida have warned that states not voluntarily moving toward the higher minimum drinking age may find their federal highway aid in jeopardy. A similar tactic was used in 1974 to force states to impose the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.
Restricting highway construction dollars from Washington could conceivably hit 35 states where the minimum drinking age for at least some alcoholic beverages is less than 21.
Already in full compliance with the proposed uniform higher minimum are Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington. And New Jersey is about to join the ranks. A measure to lift the drinking age from 19 to 21 cleared its Legislature Monday and is expected to be signed by Gov. Thomas Kean.
Nine other states and the District of Columbia prohibit hard-liquor sales to those under 21 but permit beer sales to people as young as 18 or 19. Those states are Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia.
Among the 26 states where legislation for a higher drinking age has been filed or is planned during coming legislative sessions are Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, three of only five states that allow 18-year-olds to drink.
Fourteen of the other states due to consider such measures, according to a Highway Users Federation survey, permit those 19 and older to consume all types of alcoholic beverages. Similarly pushed will be proposals in at least five of the six states which currently have drinking-age minimums at 20.
The movement to higher drinking ages, which began in 1976, reverses a trend that started during the early 1970s. Twenty-nine states cleared the way for those under 21 and, in most instances, for those as young as 18, to buy and consume liquor.
All but 10 have now at least partially reversed themselves. These exceptions are Hawaii, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, still at 18; Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, and Wyoming, remaining at 19; and Delaware, at 20.
Besides New Jersey, measures raising the minimum drinking age were approved in four states - Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Ohio - within the past 12 months.
The New York statute, which took effect Dec. 7, permits only those 19 and older to have liquor. The minimum age for such purchases and consumption had been 18 since Prohibition ended in the the 1930s.
Connecticut also advanced its drinking age to 19. It had been 18 for the past decade. Before that, it was 21.
The new Maryland measure raised from 18 to 21 the minimum age for beer purchases. The minimum age for other types of alcoholic beverages already was 21 , as it has been for decades.
Vermont lawmakers approved raising that state's drinking age to 19, only to have the measure vetoed by Gov. Richard Snelling. He holds that such a statute would accomplish nothing since the state ''has one of the lowest (liquor-related) accident rates in the nation.''
As an alternative to increasing the drinking age back toward 21, where it was until a decade ago, he is pushing for an alcohol education program which young drivers would have to complete in order to purchase liquor in Vermont.
The Snelling views run counter to those of a fellow Republican, Secretary Schweiker, who urged the special presidential commission to support a uniform drinking age of 21, holding that such a move would reduce the number of deaths caused by drunken driving.
He cited a recent study indicating that 60 percent of all high-school students drink at least once a month and 25 percent once a week. One in four drive after drinking, he observed.