Only once have I driven a car while drunk. It was a long time ago, and I got away with it. Many, many other times, I have driven a car while tired. Several of those many, many times, I almost didn't get away with it.

Once, on the Delaware Turnpike, I jerked awake just before I crashed into a truck. Another time, on U.S. 50 coming home from Ocean City, I was jolted awake by the thump of my tires sliding off the pavement to the right. If I had slid to the left instead, I would have become applesauce in the face of oncoming traffic.

Not to minimize the dangers of drunken driving, or the surge of concern over it. But I'll bet you that far more accidents and deaths are caused by fatigue than by anything aged, distilled or fermented.

In fact, just the other day, I passed a car on Interstate 95, near Laurel. I glanced over -- and the driver had her eyes closed.

I looked again to be sure I had really seen what I thought I had seen -- still closed.

Then, just as it occurred to me that an accident was surely about to happen, the woman opened her eyes and resumed staring at the road as if nothing had happened.

And maybe nothing had. Maybe her contact lenses were hurting her. Maybe she was doing long division problems and was simply trying to concentrate for a couple of seconds. Maybe she was deep into some obscure religion, whose gods were clearing a path for her among the traffic ahead. But I think she was simply nodding off to dreamland -- and caught herself just in time.

I've been wondering ever since whether I should have beeped to try to wake her up. Rose Dunn of Rockville would say yes -- as long as the beep is modest.

Rose encountered a "nodder" the other day at Connecticut Avenue and Viers Mill Road in Wheaton. Luckily, this motorist was stopped for a red light when her chin started heading chestward. The only damage she caused was to delay several motorists for a few seconds by not jack-rabbiting away as soon as the light turned green.

Rose, who was directly behind the nodder, debated delivering a sharp blast on the horn. But that might have caused the driver to stamp the accelerator in surprise. So Rose tapped the horn lightly. The nodder awoke as if shot from a gun and blithely toodled off.

Lesson: Don't scare the daylights out of a nodder. He/she might bolt out of semiconsciousness and into someone's fender.

Second lesson: Try never to drive when you're bushed. If you absolutely can't avoid it, turn the radio all the way up, put three sticks of gum in your mouth and drum your fingers incessantly on the steering wheel. Fatigue sneaks up. A serious crash doesn't wait that long.

The one car I could never fall asleep behind the wheel of is a 1965 Mustang. I'm not normally emotional about cars, but oooooooh, those '65 Tangs! Cute, sporty, powerful, just large enough, just small enough. As close as I've ever seen to The Perfect Car.

Rose Perruso of Arlington feels the same way about her '65 Mustang convertible. She feels even more affectionate toward a mysterious favor-doer. Rose's story:

"You may recall Tuesday, Oct. 15, was a gloriously warm and sunshiny fall day -- perfect weather to take a spin . . . .

"Happily, I lowered the top to feel the sun on my face and wind in my hair. Feeling all was well with the world, I drove to Seven Corners in Falls Church to poke around the stores in the mall.

"An hour or so later, noticing small groups standing under shelter at the exits, I learned the skies had opened, and the rain was teeming down . . . .

"My heart sank as I visualized the wide open Mustang . . . .Shuffling silently through the clusters of shoppers, I spotted my convertible.

"Did my eyes deceive me? Was my top back in place? It couldn't be."

But it was. A stranger had dropped the top, fastened it securely and rolled up all the windows. For dessert, he had even zipped the back window shut.

"Whoever and wherever you are," concludes Rose, "you made my day, you wonderful person."

Walter Miles Jr. of Silver Spring defines middle age as the time in life when actions creak louder than words.

I've always liked those road signs you see as you enter Maryland: WELCOME TO MARYLAND, PLEASE DRIVE GENTLY.

But how about the sign you see as you leave California and enter Oregon? It reads:

LEAVING CALIFORNIA -- RESUME NORMAL BEHAVIOR.