Potential loss of federal highway funds is prodding more than a dozen states toward reinstating a minimum drinking age of 21. Under terms of a new federal law, adopted on recommendation of the President's Commission on Drunk Driving, states with minimum drinking ages below 21 stand to lose 5 percent of their federal highway funds in the fiscal year commencing Oct. 1, 1986, and 10 percent the following year.
Massachusetts will be the first state to raise its drinking age in response to the federal goad. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, once a staunch defender of the ''old enough to vote, old enough to fight'' philosophy, is about to sign such a measure into law.
Similar legislation in more than a dozen other states where people under 21, in some instances as young as 18, can legally buy and consume liquor, will be high on 1985 legislative dockets.
The Bay State measure, intended to reduce liquor-related road accidents involving young drivers and the problem of alcohol abuse by youths, raises the drinking age from 20 to 21.
A recently completed Massachusetts study indicates that the problem of drug and liquor use among Massachusetts high school students has reached serious proportions.
The report's findings - described as ''stunning'' by educators and ''very disturbing'' by Governor Dukakis - suggest that alcohol and illegal drug abuse by Bay State teen-agers exceeds the national average.
Cracking down on drunk drivers and combating alcohol abuse has been given major attention by Dukakis since the outset of his current term nearly two years ago.
The new Massachusetts measure is scheduled to take effect June 1, unless all abutting states, through mutual agreement, set an earlier date. Those reaching age 20 before next May 31 will not be considered under-age.
Twenty-seven states, including Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia had legal drinking ages below 21 when President Reagan signed the law last July 17. They stood to lose an estimated $284.9 million in fiscal 1987 and $558.9 million in fiscal 1988.
Failure to comply with the federal statute would have cost Massachusetts at least least $10 million the first year and twice that the second.
Particularly hard hit, unless they similarly fall in line within the next 18 months, are Florida, New York, and Texas. Those three states, which have sprawling highway systems, currently permit 19-year-olds to buy and consume alcoholic beverages of all kinds.
New York, where state lawmakers last summer thwarted efforts by Gov. Mario Cuomo to raise the drinking age to 21, has $30.1 million in federal highway funds in jeopardy in fiscal 1987 and considerably more the following year.
Noncompliance could cost Texas $33.2 million and Florida $24.2 million the first year, according to US Department of Transportation estimates.
Other states facing loss of federal road funds include Hawaii, Louisiana, and Vermont, which allow 18-year-olds to drink; Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, where the drinking age is 19; and Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire, where liquor is legally available to 20-year-olds.
Newly elected Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin - unlike retiring Gov. Richard A. Snelling, who vetoed measures to raise the drinking age - has indicated strong support for such a measure.
Also out of compliance are Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia, which have drinking-age minimums for certain types of liquor - usually beer - below 21.
If all states set their legal drinking ages at 21, the annual rate of liquor-connected road accident fatalities could be chopped by 700 to 1,000, federal highway safety officials estimate.