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Is US making headway against drunk drivers?

In 1982, for the third straight year, the number of traffic accidents in the United States was down - and so, too, was the number of motor vehicle-related deaths.

Much of the decline appears to have come from improvements in traffic records for nighttime, holiday, and weekend driving, when the number of drunken drivers is greatest.

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The National Safety Council estimates there were 46,300 road fatalities last year, a 10 percent decline from 1981. Although final figures are not available, ordinarily at least half of the accidents resulting in death involve a drunk driver.

The problem of intoxicated motorists has been particularly great after sundown, figures show. Until 1982, the proportion of nighttime road deaths had climbed annually, from 53 percent in 1974 to 62 percent in 1981, observes Robert M. Calvin of the Highway Users' Federation.

Experts generally agree that tougher and more rigidly enforced penalties for drunken driving have contributed to the decline, although they are uncertain exactly how much of the improvement can be attributed to these new laws.

Because most states did not begin stepping up the fight against drunken driving until late in 1982 or until this year, there could be even more impressive reductions in liquor-related accidents next year, many highway-safety officials say.

Of considerable impact could be the recommendations of the special commission on drunk driving appointed last spring by President Reagan. In its interim report in December, the 32-member panel urged states to provide stiffer, surer, and more uniform driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) penalties.

Most of these recommendations are likely to be included in the final report, according to executive director Eugene Lipp. The commission is likely to meet next in late May, providing President Reagan extends the commission's investigation. The panel is supposed to wrap up its one-year assignment April 14 .

Some commission members are believed to favor greater emphasis on rehabilitation of drunk drivers rather than punitive measures such as mandatory sentences for DWI convictions.

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One major recommendation - certain to be carried over from the interim report to the final suggestions - is a minimum drinking age of 21 in all states for all types of liquors.

During the past six years, at least 20 states have already started moving in that direction.

New Jersey, for example, upped its drinking age from 19 to 21 as of January. A newly enacted law in Virginia lifts the minimum age from 18 to 19 for beer purchase and retains the legal age at 21 for other types of liquors.

The newest and perhaps most complex of these statutes raises the drinking age for West Virginians from 18 to 19, but students from neighboring states with a higher age minimum who are attending schools in West Virginia are bound by the laws back home. Gov. John D. ''Jay'' Rockefeller IV signed the measure into law March 26.

That move leaves only four states - Hawaii, Louisiana, Vermont, and Wisconsin - that allow 18-year-olds to buy all types of liquors. Seven others plus the District of Columbia let 18-year-olds buy beer but restrict the purchase of other types of liquors to people 21 or older.

Legislation to raise the legal age for purchasing beer to 21 has passed the Oklahoma Senate, but the House has approved a different measure which would make compliance subject to local option.

In Georgia, a move to raise the drinking age from 19 to 21 passed the Senate earlier this year and is expected to come before the House during the 1984 lawmaking session.

A similar measure in Idaho made it through the House, only to be turned back by a Senate committee.

More than a dozen other states have proposals pending that would increase the legal drinking age by at least one year. In one of these states, Vermont, Gov. Richard A. Snelling opposes such legislation and vetoed it last year.

A broad range of other proposals to discourage drunk driving are pending in state legislatures across the nation, notes Katherine Yoe of the Highway Users' Federation. ''There is definitely increased sentiment in this direction.''

In some instances, lawmakers' enthusiasm appears tentative, especially in states where laws providing stiffer penalties were enacted last year or where there is not a strong, publicly supported push for action, says John Moulden of the National Highway Safety Administration.

He says it's too early to tell what impact the presidential commission's recommendations might have, since the interim report did not come out until shortly before 1983 legislative sessions.

In several states, stiffer laws and their enforcement have helped to cut down on DWI-related deaths, Mr. Moulden says. In particular he cites Maine, where liquor-connected fatal accidents were down 24 percent during the first 12 months of its statute, which includes mandatory jail sentences.

DWI-related crashes in 1982 were down 30 percent in Maryland and Minnesota, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. California's experience with tougher drunk-driving penalties last year included 14 percent fewer fatal crashes.

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