A Maryland proposal to suspend the license of a motorist charged with drunken driving who has three prior convictions has drawn strong opposition from law enforcement officials and public safety activists who consider it lenient.

The opposition has prompted Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration officials to reconsider the plan. Both MVA and public activist groups say they expect a tougher proposal to be announced within a few months.

The original MVA proposal, drafted this month, would force officials to suspend the license of a driver charged with driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol if the driver had three earlier convictions. In Maryland, motorists with a 0.13 percent alcohol level in their blood are considered to be driving while intoxicated; a level of 0.08 percent can lead to the lesser charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

The MVA proposal contains two key provisions: suspension of a license on an emergency basis if a driver poses a "substantial and immediate danger and harm," and immediate suspension of unsafe and habitually negligent drivers, including drunk drivers. In both cases, a hearing would follow within seven days.

Maryland law now allows for emergency license suspension by a judge or MVA officials at any time, but critics say that provision has been rarely used because it is vague and has no specific mandates, such as number of convictions or alcohol level, for suspension. State officials said statistics on the number of license suspensions are not available, but Motor Vehicles Administrator Marshall Rickert said the provision is "very sparingly used."

Groups working to strengthen drunken driving laws, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the DWI Institute in Annapolis and the state Fraternal Order of Police, are pushing state officials for a tougher proposal that would force the immediate suspension of a license for anyone arrested for drunken driving if the driver has been convicted of drunken driving.

"What {the MVA} proposed is too little, too late," said Donald Harting, Maryland chairman of MADD. "We recognize the value of someone's innocence until proven guilty, but with the court system taking so long, it's a real problem keeping these people off the roads."

MVA officials, however, said they are unwilling to commit themselves to any proposal until they further study the issue and examine procedures used elsewhere, a process that they said should be completed by the fall.

The activists' proposal "leans toward the stringent side," Rickert said. Any new state plan would seek to strike a balance between protection of motorists and overburdening of police and law enforcement officials, who would be forced to spend more time in the courtroom under the more stringent proposal, he said. "When we take law enforcement officials off the beat, it becomes a serious cost," he added.

In Maryland in 1986, according to state court statistics, 33,200 charges of driving while intoxicated were filed and 10,843 of those cases resulted in guilty verdicts. About 1,300 ended with not-guilty verdicts, and the rest were handled in other ways, such as assigning probation before judgment or ordering the driver to attend special driving schools and alcohol programs. No statistics were available for the charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

In addition, a series of recent incidents involving drunk drivers, along with an increase in citizen activism, petitioning and letter-writing campaigns, has jarred state officials into further action.

"I'm sickened by the way the MVA handles these situations," said Lynn Russell, a Prince George's County resident. "They forget about where their priorities should be -- keeping the drunk drivers off the road."

Russell initiated a letter-writing and petition campaign that gathered more than 100 signatures to provide for more stringent laws after her husband was injured in an accident on March 26. His car was struck from behind by a car driven by a man who police said appeared to be drunk.

Rickert said that he and his staff began to reconsider the plan after they realized that "a large number of groups" are concerned with the issue.

One option the MVA is considering is similar to Delaware's 1982 law, which allows a police officer arresting a motorist for driving while intoxicated or under the influence to immediately impound the driver's license. In return, the driver receives a document that serves as a temporary license for 15 days. If the driver does not appeal for a hearing, the license is automatically suspended. First offenders receive three-month license suspensions; for second offenders, it's 12 months, and for third offenders, 18 months.