A Virginia man accused of driving while intoxicated in an accident in which three people were killed last year has been indicted by a Fauquier County grand jury on second-degree murder charges.

Law enforcement officials said yesterday they believe the case marks the first time in the state's history that a murder charge -- which would require prosecutors to prove malice on the part of the driver--has been applied to an alcohol-related traffic fatality.

"When someone gets into a 4,000-pound vehicle and drives it 50 miles an hour when he's drunk, he's committing a malicious and wanton act against society as a whole," Fauquier assistant prosecutor Roger Inger contended yesterday.

Second-degree murder is punishable in Virginia with five to 20 years in prison. Manslaughter, the criminal charge most often brought in fatal traffic cases, can mean one to five years' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

The driver, Warren Wesley Essex, 25, of Remington, Va., faces three counts of murder and a single count of driving while intoxicated. Attempts to reach Essex's attorney yesterday were unsuccessful.

Killed in the collision last Nov. 25 were two Fauquier High School students, Nora Lynn Neale, 17, and Deborah Lynn Gouldthorp, 16, and a passenger riding with Essex, James E. Carter, 23.

Neale, Gouldthorp and Gouldthorp's brother, John, were returning home to the Warrenton area from a bowling alley in Culpeper when the collision occurred about 10:45 p.m. on a rural, two-lane highway.

"He Essex was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Inger yesterday, referring to recent publicity about the high incidence of drunk drivers on the nation's highways.

Inger said citizen efforts in Virginia and elsewhere to encourage a crackdown by state legislatures on drunken drivers led him and chief Fauquier prosecutor Charles Foley to seek the more serious charge.

"The difference between murder and manslaughter is one word: malice," said Inger. He said his theory of the case is that malice "can be inferred from the crime itself. A car is a deadly weapon when the driver is intoxicated."

Inger said the California Supreme Court recently upheld a murder indictment in a similar case involving allegations of drunken driving even though California has a vehicular homicide law that carries lesser penalties.

"We think the evidence justifies a murder indictment in this case," Inger added. He said witnesses claimed to have seen Essex driving erratically for seven or eight miles before the fatal collision.

Donna Neale, mother of one of the victims, said yesterday her daughter was involved in local church activities and had applied for admission to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg next fall.