It is unfortunate that the Fourth of July is so regularly viewed as the conjunction of the best and worst in American society - patriotic celebration and highway tragedy.
But at least this year the Fourth has been preceded with signs of greater public alertness toward that tragic side of American mores, specifically the role of drinking in driving mishaps, and how to fix responsibility for promotion of the drinking that leads to the highway toll.
Congress quickly passed and sent to President Reagan for signing a bill that would require all states to raise the legal drinking age to 21 or face loss of federal highway funds. Congress has begun to look at beer ads on television, which attempt to identify drinking with bravura performance and social ''in-ness'' without the slightest warning of drinking's risks.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled last week that hosts who directly serve liquor to a guest can be held liable for injuries to others should the guest have an auto accident. This followed earlier New Jersey rulings that tavern owners, liquor license holders, and hosts who had served liquor to minors could be held liable in drunken driving accidents.
American restaurant owners are under pressure in many communities to limit drinks and curtail so-called happy hours.
There should be no question about what is at work here. Armed with the simple logic of experience and cause, reasonable Americans are insisting that those responsible for governing the country and the airwaves, or serving others in commercial establishments or at home, have a joint responsibility in protecting society, and particularly the impressionable young, from the risks of drinking.
As New Jersey Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz wrote in his court's ruling: ''This court senses that there may be a substantial change occurring in social attitudes and customs concerning drinking, whether at home or in taverns. It is the upheaval of prior norms by a society that has finally recognized that it must change its habits and do whatever is required, whether it means a small change or a significant one, in order to stop the senseless loss inflicted by drunken drivers.''
Some Americans might have trouble with the legal issues involved. The individual driver, drinking or not, should remain primarily responsible for the operation of his vehicle or for getting into a mentally or physically impaired condition by drinking. Acting on this view, testing for drunk driving has been greatly stepped up at holiday and weekend times across the US.
The nationwide 21-drinking-age law also has its drawbacks. Some lawmakers do not like the linkage between highway funds and state legislation to enact the law. President Reagan had to reverse his earlier position to support the bill. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo suffered a defeat in his own statehouse last month in trying to raise the state drinking age from 19 to 21. Yet these politicians feel they are out in front of the line of needed change and are willing to take the political risks.
Societies can change their ways. For more than two decades, the Scandinavians have enforced a rigid division in drinking between those who will subsequently drive and those who won't. Drinkers take taxis. In Finland, pitchers of orange juice are readied for the nondrinkers. The provision of a nonliquor alternative is finding wider acceptance elsewhere in Europe.
Perception of the risks of smoking and the rights of nonsmokers - to be free of seductive advertising on the airwaves, of tobacco smoke in aircraft and public places - has already made considerable headway.
The rights of individuals to be free of the hazards, promotion, and imposition of drinking as a value system are also beginning to be declared. This is something, too, to observe and appreciate this Fourth of July.