In 1981, as Maryland launched its war on drunken driving, Montgomery County police Cpt. Virgil C. Hottinger announced that the Rockville district officer who arrested the most drunken drivers per month would win the personal use of a 1976 Ford LTD for the following month, with gasoline paid for by the county.

The incentive apparently worked. By 1982, the Rockville police district was the undisputed leader in drunken driving arrests, accounting for 945 of the year's 3,152 arrests of motorists charged with driving while intoxicated.In the first eight months of this year, Rockville again leads the county's other four police districts, with 617 of 2,105 DWI arrests, police said.

Hottinger remains unapologetic about the automotive "reward"--the Ford has since been replaced by a 1982 Chrysler LeBaron--but that incentive and others used by Maryland State Police have recently been attacked by judges who questioned whether drunken driving arrests were prompted more by bonuses than by actual offenses.

"I'm not going to apologize for it," Hottinger said. "Police work is not like private enterprise, where you have many types of bonuses and incentives. You don't do this program to increase DWI arrests. Essentially, it's a reward."

State police also have their own incentives, which range from having their names on plaques and commendations from the superintendent to a year's use of an unmarked cruiser during patrols, officials said.

Several troopers also have been taken to lunch and dinner by their commanders, according to state police spokesman Sgt. H. Thomas Moore. Moore stressed that the meals were paid for by the commanders and did not occur during working hours.

Still, the practice of rewarding troopers with meals was sharply attacked last month by Anne Arundel District Court Judge Thomas Curley, who in the course of a drunken driving trial questioned the validity of many of the drunken driving cases brought before him.

"God knows a drinking driver unable to handle his vehicle is a lethal proposition" Curley said, according to court records. "But you know, when you sit and try as many of these cases as I do . . . when you hear that some state police barracks have contests, and the successful officer who wrote the most tickets is given a free dinner . . . then judges begin to wonder, 'Is every one of these a true driving while intoxicated case?' "

Robert Sweeney, the state's chief district court judge, later echoed Curley's remarks, saying he had "great reservations" about rewarding troopers with meals.

"We're not running contests," Moore declared. "At most, three commanders have paid for meals and then out of their own pockets." One barracks commander bought rolls and cold cuts for a particularly successful state police shift, Moore added.

"The real incentive for state police is that the top man in DWI arrests each month gets his name placed on a plaque in each barracks and a letter" from Superintendent W.T. Travers Jr., Moore said.

State police arrested 9,547 drunken drivers in the first seven months of this year, compared to 7,548 in the same period last year, Moore said.

Few county police departments in Maryland have incentive programs for DWI arrests; indeed, the Rockville district is the only one in Montgomery with such a program. Spokesmen for several departments said top police officials either have never considered incentives or rejected the idea as unnecessary.

"Our attitude is that an officer's salary is quite enough," Howard County police spokesman Sgt. Paul Hajek said. "We don't have to dangle a carrot in front of anybody's nose. The philosophy is you bust your can while you're on the job."

Like many other Maryland jurisdictions, Howard pays its officers time-and-a-half for working overtime on special drunken driving shifts.

"For most of our people, working DWI details is in itself very satisfying," said Prince George's Lt. David B. Mitchell, who oversees the county's sobriety checkpoints and a program run in conjunction with state police. Many officers in Prince George's, where DWI arrests climbed from 337 in the first half of 1981 to 889 in the same period this year, regard the program " as an elite assignment, Mitchell said.

"The question of incentive has never come up," Mitchell added. "There's an intrinsic reward to getting the drunk driver off the road."

In Prince George's, the number of alcohol-related highway deaths has plummeted by 71 percent since 1981, police said.

Spokesmen for Frederick and Anne Arundel departments also said those counties offer no incentive program.

Nonetheless, state police at the Rockville barracks vie each year for the "special privilege" of having an unmarked cruiser, which is awarded to the trooper with the most drunken driving arrests, said Lt. John O. Himmelmann, the Rockville commander. Ironically, many troopers prefer the standard-issue cruisers painted in a highly visible yellow.

"I think some sort of incentive makes a little difference," Himmelmann said. "An unmarked cruiser is a special privilege, a recognition of an accomplishment."

Montgomery County's Hottinger agreed. "With a DWI arrest, there are too many safeguards for somebody to abuse the system just to win the car for the month," he said. "An officer has to have the evidence, the probable cause for DWI arrest. The one officer who is rewarded the car month after month is a hard worker with a very high conviction rate."

The officer, 12-year police veteran Brad Graham, was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment. In August, Graham, who consistently leads the county in drunken driving arrests, made 20 of them, or about a third of all those in the Rockville district, Hottinger said.

"The car is a little something extra for our officers," said Hottinger, noting Graham is scheduled to work DWI details tomorrow and Saturday night.