In the last decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has spent uncounted millions to combat drunk driving. Up to $200 million a year is given to the states for this purpose.

What all this money has bought for us so far is hard to discern. On the average, drunken drivers kill one of us every 23 minutes, day and night, weekdays, weekends, 365 days a year. A million others escape with injuries.

A research psychologist with NHTSA says the present level of druken driving is of "epidemic proportions." Congressmen have called the situation "an outrage" and "a national disgrace."

Yet many judges, jurors, presecutors and legislators look upon this epidemic of death by auto as a minor social problem. Some won't lift a finger to pass remedial lesiglation, others actually work to block stricter laws against drunk driving.

For example: 48 states consider a driver legally drunk when his blood-acohol content reaches .10 percent. The Distilled Spirits Council says that a 150-pound man would have to drink four 1-ounce shots of 100-proof liquor in an hour to bring his blood-alcohol reading up to .10. But the states of Maryland and Mississippi would judge such a driver to be sober. In those two states, the drinking driver is legally sober until his blood-alcohol level reaches .15 (in other words, until that 150-pound man has downed six shots of high-test in an hour).

Year after year, attempts have been made to change Maryland's law and make it conform to the law in most states. These efforts have always been blocked by Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), head of the House Judiciary Committee. Last September, Owens explained to Washington Post staff writer Eugene L. Meyer that if laws against drunk driving were made more severe, it would "only help the lawyers."

On the front page of yesterday's Post, staff writer Joseph D. Whitaker told us how Judge Robert S. Heise of Anne Arundel County District Court feels about drunken drivers.

"The philosophy of some people is that you have to make the punishment fit the crime," Judge Heise said, "but that's the wrong way to look at drunk drivers. These are social drinkers who went a little overboard. They're not alcoholics or criminals. Most of the time they have done nothing dangerous, but have merely violated a law."

A mere technicality, eh your honor?

Consider the result of this kind of attitude toward drunk driving: In 1980, D. C. police charged 3,439 motorists with driving while drunk (and we all know that the cops don't charge you with drunk driving unless you've really gone out of your way to call your condition to their attention). Of the 3,439 charged, 411 pleaded quilty and 35 went to trial and were found guilty. The other 2,993 beat the drunk driving rap, with some 1,500 of them permitted to plead guilty to lesser charges. Enforcement is similarly tax throughout the nation.

Yet each year more than a million people are injured in crashes that involve drunken drivers. Some of those injuries leave men, women and little children crippled for life.

Whitaker says, "On a Saturday night, 1 in 10 drivers on America streets and highways will be legally drunk." But only 1 out of every 2,000 drunken drivers will ever be arrested, and far fewer will be prosecuted for drunken driving. The prisons are full; judges and prosecutors are happy to settle for a guilty plea to a lesser charge.

So the same "social" drinkers go back out on the street to drink and drive another day. On the rare occasions that a judge suspends or revokes a drunk's license, the culprit can get a new one through several illegal methods, or he can simply drive without a permit. After all, the courts make it extremely difficult for police to conduct spot checks to find out who has a permit and who hasn't, so why worry?

When it's all added up, Whitaker gives you the bottom line in these chilling words:

"Over the last decade, more than 250,000 Americans have died because of drunken drivers -- more than four times the number of Americans killed during a decade of fighting in the Vietnam war."

Somewhere along the line, I think we got our values twisted. What's the difference to the victim whether an enemy soldier shot him or a drunk smashed into him with an auto? Either way, he's just as dead.