Fifteen times he was arrested for drunken driving, and 15 times he went to court, paid a small fine and kept his driver's license.

On his 16th arrest for driving while intoxicated, the judge sent this Fairfax County man to a government-run Alcohol Safety Action Program--classes to teach him about the dangers of drinking and driving. He finished the program, got drunk again and was stopped by the police one more time.

The last time--his 17th drunken- driving arrest in 35 years of driving--he was sent to the Ethos Foundation, a private, nonprofit alcoholism treatment program in Arlington that offers classes for people charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI). Since finishing the Ethos program he hasn't had a drink, has stayed sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This man, who asked not to be identified, considers himself lucky because he never was involved in a serious accident. More than half of the nation's 51,000 traffic deaths in 1980 involved alcohol, a grim statistic that is receiving increased national attention as an alarmed public pushes for more arrests and stiffer penalties for drunken driving.

While the spotlight now is on arrests and sentencing, a quieter debate is taking place in Fairfax County. It concerns efforts to rehabilitate, instead of merely punish, drunken drivers.

At issue is who should offer educational and treatment programs for such individuals: the county, through its Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP), or private groups such as the Ethos Foundation, which claim they can do a better job of reforming offenders.

Under Virginia law, local judges have the option of sending anyone charged with driving while intoxicated to some sort of rehabilitation program. For first offenders, participation in such programs usually is offered in lieu of conviction, which would mean suspension of the driver's license, a fine and perhaps a jail term.

Both ASAP and Ethos offer several hours of classes on the effects of alcohol on driving. Ethos also counsels serious drinkers; ASAP generally refers them to other groups for further treatment. The other major differences between the programs are their size--Ethos has fewer than 300 clients annually, compared with 3,500 in ASAP--and the teaching styles of the two programs.

Acccording to private attorneys and former offenders who have worked with both programs, the personalized teaching at Ethos is far more effective in keeping drinkers off the roads.

Ethos directors, who charge $150 per person, compared with the county's $200, cite a negligible rearrest rate among their graduates. They call the county's ASAP program "a revolving door" and point to dozens of clients, such as the Fairfax County man mentioned above, who continued to drink and drive after the ASAP course but quit after undergoing Ethos counseling.

But Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan, who oversees all drunken-driving cases in the county, endorses ASAP for first offenders with good driving records, and at least two Fairfax County judges have decided they will no longer accept Ethos as a substitute for the county's program.

"We decided we couldn't keep track of people very well" in Ethos, said Judge Robert M. Hurst, chief judge of the Fairfax County General District Court. "The services they provided were not the same type we could get through our own program," Hurst said, citing difficulties in checking Ethos' records as one problem the court had with the private program.

Hurst called his decision to drop Ethos "strictly administrative," however. "It has nothing to do with the rehabilitation" done by Ethos," he said.

"I have no idea what in the world they do," Hurst said. He said he was not singling out Ethos in his decision, although no one familiar with such programs could name another one like it.

Step One Services, a Fairfax City group, once offered DWI classes, but director Jean Mack said Step One now concentrates on treatment of alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous handles many referrals from Ethos and ASAP, but does not offer classes for DWI defendants.

Ethos' attempt to serve as a substitute for ASAP "is like fighting City Hall," said Mack.

And Philip Brennan, a Justice Department attorney who is one of Ethos' volunteer directors, said he thinks Judge Hurst's opposition stems from the inconvenience of working with an agency that is not closely affiliated with the court, as ASAP is.

"I don't think convenience is the issue," Brennan said. "It's the safety of the public."

Local attorneys who send clients to the foundation also criticized Hurst's decision as "unfair." Although he's chief judge, Hurst's decision is not binding on the six other General District Court judges in Fairfax; but at least one other judge, Frank Perry, said he also plans to stop accepting Ethos as an alternative to ASAP.

Local judges generally offer the rehabilitation option only to first or second offenders. If a defendant successfully completes the course, the judges often reduce the DWI charge to reckless driving and do not suspend the license.

In the 20 months from April 1980 until November 1981, nearly 300 persons charged with drunken driving in Fairfax enrolled in Ethos classes, Brennan said. Of those, 75 percent were repeat offenders who had completed ASAP programs, he said. A year after completing Ethos classes, only one of those referrals has been rearrested for drunken driving, Brennan said.

The Ethos Foundation, founded by volunteers in 1978, offers several alcohol-treatment programs in addition to the DWI course. Brennan said the driving class was started to fill a gap described by local attorneys, who felt ASAP was not effective enough.

DWI defendants often are referred to Ethos by their attorneys, who ask the court to allow their clients to remain in the Ethos program instead of enrolling in ASAP. Clients attend weekly seminars and counseling sessions that last five to 16 weeks, depending on the severity of the drinking problem. The classes, which include about six people, concentrate on the physical and personality effects of drinking.

ASAP's classes also vary according to the severity of a client's drinking problem, said Elaine Boyle, director of Fairfax ASAP. Counselors evaluate each referred defendant and place him in programs ranging from a 20-hour driver improvement school, which ASAP runs itself, to intensive treatment or detoxification centers operated by outside groups, Boyle said.

"The advantage of Ethos over the ASAP program is the individual attention," said Joe Lamb, a Fairfax County attorney who has sent clients to Ethos. "The classes are geared toward each client's needs and capabilities."

Judge Hurst's decision "seems kind of silly because Ethos seems to work so much better than ASAP," Lamb said. "If there's a more successful program that's cheaper, why not use it?"

A Fairfax County salesman who went through ASAP after a first drunken-driving arrest and Ethos after his second said he benefited from the personalized, small-group approach in Ethos. He said his ASAP classes had about 30 students each, although ASAP claims there are only 18 to 20 in a class.

"When you go through the ASAP program, they go through scare tactics, show some bloody movies and more or less threaten you," said the salesman, who asked to remain anonymous. "Ethos deals with it on a more intelligent level. They give you facts and help you make a decision about drinking and driving. People go through the ASAP program just to hold onto their driver's license. It's a way of punishment, rather than rehabilitation."

Just what ASAP is supposed to do is, in fact, part of the controversy.

"Ours is not a treatment program, ours is a probation program," said Boyle.

She said she does not have figures on the recidivism rate among Fairfax ASAP participants because she has no money to compile such data. A recent random sampling by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (ASAP's parent organization) of 55 former ASAP clients, however, found that only one person--2 percent of the total--had been rearrested for drunken driving. Statewide, ASAP officials say 6 percent of the graduates of Virginia ASAPs are rearrested for the same offense within a year, compared with 12 percent among drivers never enrolled in ASAP.

Despite cricitism of ASAP by Ethos and several private attorneys, county prosecutors generally support ASAP as an option for first offenders.

"From what I've heard, it's an excellent program," said Steve Merril, Fairfax deputy commonwealth's attorney. "In the right type of cases, ASAP can be a valuable tool, especially for the guy with a fine driving record who goes to a party, has a few drinks and gets stopped" by police on the way home. Someone like that, he said, tends to learn a lesson and avoid repeating the offense.

Judge Hurst and Brennan agree, however, that there should be a limit on the chances of rehabilitation offered to frequent offenders.

"There are people who just can't get sober," Brennan said. "Unquestionably, put those people in the slammer and keep them there forever. Keep them off the highway."

But of those who can be helped, he said, Ethos wants a chance to work with them.

"The purpose of ASAP and our purpose is the same: to reduce deaths on the highway," he said. "The program that works should be accepted in the community."