The number of traffic cases in Fairfax General District Court reached a record high this year, filling courtrooms with overflow crowds and clogging clerical offices with paperwork.

The increase, which continues a six-year trend, is straining an already overburdened court system, according to a variety of people who work in the court.

So far this year, the number of cases is almost 20,000 ahead of 1986 and twice the load in 1981, court officials said this week.

Year-end statistics are expected to show that the court handled 175,000 traffic cases in 1987, clerk of the court Nancy Lake said.

"We don't have enough staff to adequately serve the public," said Judge Stewart P. Davis, whose regular morning crowd of defendants and witnesses extends from the front of the courtroom into the lobby.

"I look at it and think, there's got to be a better way," Davis said.

While the judges have managed to keep up with the caseload, the clerks lag behind.

New citations are not entered into the court computer until a week before the defendant's court date, Lake said.

As a result, defendants are often unable to check the date and may find themselves tried in absentia, incurring court fees and potentially larger fines, she said.

The clerical staff of more than 50 has a two-month backlog of guilty notices that it has not forwarded to the Department of Motor Vehicles, meaning that the violations would not appear on the defendants' records, Lake said, although drunk driving convictions are forwarded immediately.

Getting through to the traffic court on its two telephone lines can be difficult, and getting to the head of the lines to pay fines can take as much as 30 minutes, she added.

On one recent day, four judges handled 841 traffic cases while the clerical staff processed another 787 uncontested citations, Lake said.

Observers said the record volume is partly a result of stepped-up police enforcement of highway laws and partly just another symptom of the county's notorious traffic troubles.

Fairfax County added about 25 officers to its police force this year and the department has targeted traffic violators. At the same time, more motorists are using the roadways, and they are growing increasingly frustrated with the congestion they encounter, police, lawyers and court officials said.

"People will reach a level where they're running late and they hit a traffic block and they're doing almost anything to beat sitting there like everyone else," said Maj. Al Stevens, commander of the Fairfax police patrol bureau.

Drivers are quicker to run yellow lights or ride along the shoulders of roads, Stevens said. While the number of citations climbs, many drivers get away with their misdeeds, he said. He said that he often refrains from stopping motorists driving several miles per hour above the speed limit. "I can't afford to spend my whole day in traffic court," he said.

On a typical day, defendants arriving at the judicial center will find the parking lot full by 9 a.m. Although they get their day in court, they may spend most of it waiting. When their cases are called, justice is brisk and some seem flustered by the pace at which the judges proceed.

Defense lawyers praised the judges for moving through their dockets fairly and efficiently but said the heavy volume inevitably affects the judicial process.

"There are occasions when I'm not sure the defendants fully understand what's happening to them," said Ronald E. Smith, a Fairfax lawyer.

"I'm just getting totally run around here. They keep sending me back and forth," Clay Cullen, a Falls Church construction manager, said as he waited in line for help earlier this week. Cullen said he called twice to doublecheck his court date but found his name missing from the docket when he arrived at the courthouse.

"Everyone says there's nothing they can do because there's no paperwork. You've got to almost physically grab one of the prosecuting attorneys to get a word in, and then it goes in one ear and out the other," Cullen said.

Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said his office has been overextended since the traffic court added a judge and opened a fourth courtroom in July. "Some days we don't have anybody in that fourth court when it starts and the first person who gets released from Circuit Court goes to that court," Horan said. Horan also has asked the state to increase his staff.

Catherine Wiedemer, director of personnel for the Supreme Court of Virginia, said that courts throughout the state are experiencing heavy workloads. A September ranking of Virginia's 73 district courts by the number of new cases per employe this year placed Fairfax eighth.

Courts in Fredericksburg, Virginia Beach and Fairfax City were among those that ranked higher.

The Committee on District Courts has recommended that the General Assembly approve the addition of one judge to Fairfax by July and 12 clerks during the next two years.

But court officials said they fear any progress could be negated if the police department gets the roughly 30 new positions it has requested in next year's county budget and the number of traffic citations rises proportionally.