There was a report on television the other evening about a woman who had been found guilty of causing an auto accident in which a young child was killed. A number of charges were involved, among them drunk driving. She was sent to jail for five years. And my reaction, on hearing the news, was: "Hey, isn't that pretty stiff for drunk driving?"

The answer, of course, is: No. But the question that I so instinctively asked is all too characteristic of our attitude toward drunk driving, and it helps explain why we have been so incredibly complacent about punishing one of the country's most widespread and destructive crimes. Now, for some reason, opinion seems to be shifting; organizations have been established to lobby for stronger drunk-driving laws, and the victims of drunk driving -- or, as is often the case, the victims' survivors -- seem more willing to express their outrage in public. Yet the odds are still very high against effective reform.

From time to time, to be sure, our elected representatives make dutiful bows in the direction of clamping down on drunk driving -- usually after a child has been killed, or an elderly pedestrian, or a carload of teen-agers. But if there is a state in the nation that has a genuinely effective drunk-driving law, I am unaware of it.

It's easy enough to see why the laws are so lax. At the most trivial level, it's because a great many of the people who pass the laws on drunk driving happen to be drinkers themselves; just ask the lobbyists who underwrite their nocturnal festivities. Similarly, the people who enforce those laws -- the police and the prosecutors and the judges -- do not take drunk driving very seriously, even though it is understood to cause the larger part of the 50,000 highway deaths we manage to rack up each year.

Perhaps that's because the enforcers of the law, like the legislators, enjoy a nip from time to time. But more likely it has to do with basic American attitudes toward drinking and driving. One of the most basic of these may be that drunk driving is not a "crime." No "criminal intent" is involved. Most of the people who slide boozily behind their steering wheels are not "criminal types"; they're nice middle-class folks, just like you and me.

Right. I know whereof I speak. Drunk driving is something at which I have had considerable and intimate experience. Back in the not-so-distant days when I still permitted myself the manifold pleasures of hard alcohol, I committed atrocities behind the wheel that, when I recollect them now, quite literally give me chills. It is a miracle, really, that I am around to write about these vehicular carousings, that the only blood to be shed in all those wild years came when a friend and I received minor facial cuts after whacking into the windshield of a car that had just encountered a telephone pole; this was 1965 and we were on our way out to dinner, after celebrating Lyndon Johnson's great "We shall overcome" speech with several tumblers of Scotch.

In bed in the shank of the night I am sometimes attacked by a flood of these memories, of nights careening wildly along the highways of my past, and I shudder. The memories are uniformly vivid and unpleasant, and I do not plan to add to their rather daunting number. But I am not here for a confession or a lecture. I did not quit drinking (I switched to wine) and I am not going to urge you to. But I did stop getting behind the wheel after having drinks, because in that circumstance the car becomes a lethal weapon.

This is the simple truth that millions of Americans refuse to understand or admit. A car with an intoxicated driver is precisely as dangerous as a loaded gun in the hands of someone who is blinded by rage. The combination of an instrument with the power to kill and a person who is past the powers of reason is precisely the same in both cases. In domestic murders as with drunk driving, there is no malice aforethought or premeditation. But in both cases the end result is a crime; it's just that when drunk driving is the cause, we too rarely are willing to treat it as one.

Could the real reason for this be that we have effectively legalized drunk driving? Like gambling and pot-smoking, is it now so widespread that we tacitly condone it, or at least ignore it as a major social problem?

Certainly that is what most of the evidence suggests. The press repeatedly reports about people who have been convicted over and again of drunk driving, yet continue to be licensed to operate a car. From time to time governors and state-police commanders announce "get-tough" policies toward drunk driving, but they're soon enough forgotten. Moves to raise the legal drinking age, and thus to make it more difficult for car-happy teen-agers to get loaded, almost invariably expire in vast messes of lobbying.

Really it would be quite simple to make people think twice before climbing behind the wheel crocked. Suspend their licenses on the first offense for at least a year; send them to jail for 30 or 60 days for the second; treat drunk-driving accidents involving injury or death as voluntary manslaughter rather than driving offenses. Make the penalties mandatory and automatic, so that people who can afford lawyers would be as liable for suspension and imprisonment as those who cannot.

Establishing laws such as these would be a simple matter and almost certainly would have wonderful results. But it isn't going to happen. Americans long ago came to regard the privilege of driving as a right, and they chafe at any restrictions on it -- even on their right to kill. Which is why it is difficult to work up much optimism that the current lobbying efforts will produce anything more than token action. These men and women who have been testifying before legislative committees have heartbreaking stories to tell, but no one seems to be listening. Perhaps no one really wants to.