FIRST THE GOOD (but not good enough) news: the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is for the first time proposing rules that would permit the state to suspend immediately the licenses of habitual drunk drivers. The bad news: the rules as first announced would allow such a suspension only after three convictions and an arrest for a fourth offense. For every obvious reason you could think of, this crazily lenient provision has drawn intense criticism from citizens' groups, police organizations and anybody else who has given it more than 10 seconds' thought. Their protests have at least prompted the state agency to take another look at its proposal. We think one conviction is enough.

We're not talking here about unfair assumptions of guilt before trial. The suspension of a license to drive is an administrative decision; the court handles criminal proceedings. Automatic license suspensions of first offenders are nothing new elsewhere around the country. The idea is simple: drunk drivers kill people, and anyone convicted of driving under the influence who takes to the wheel again with apparent alcoholic breath should not be on the prowl again.

Lynn Russell, who is leading a campaign to tighten the rules, is a Prince George's County resident whose husband, Kevin, was seriously injured March 24 when his car was rammed from behind by a car driven by a man who police say appeared to be drunk at the time. That man had a record of driving offenses and was then awaiting action by the MVA on a charge that had resulted in his conviction for driving under the influence. Mrs. Russell has more than a little reason to be concerned. And her cause is a good one. The state agency's proposal should be strengthened to keep drunk drivers off the road.