A LOOK at the old clock on the wall says it's time once again for millions of Americans to mark the arrival of a new year the way generations have done -- by getting loaded. Though people seem to be drinking less these days -- and though the falling-down fool in the paper hat may be less prevalent than in the past -- this is always the deadliest evening, when the seemingly sober "social" drinker goes with the flow and then goes to the car to drive home. Some may weave, swerve or straddle enough to be obvious, but a frightening number will simply be too impaired to pilot their vehicles at all safely. The rest is old hat: hundreds of people will be killed and thousands maimed. Law-abiding motorists and pedestrians may find Getting There a nightmare and getting back even worse.

Police don't think this qualifies as fun. Most of the officers out there tonight have seen what drunken drivers can do, and they don't find it at all cute. They know -- and so should everyone on the roads -- that one of every 10 motorists this weekend will be affected in some way by drinking; and police will be setting up sobriety checkpoints to single out and arrest those who don't belong at the controls of any moving vehicle.

Enough of this cheerless greeting of The Eve. We realize that people do, and will, drink over this weekend -- and lots of other times in '88. But for their own sake, and everybody else's, they should be spared the navigating duties. This substitution of sober for drunk drivers isn't happening nearly enough -- drunk-driving deaths actually increased last year. The year 1988 would be a fine timeto turn this statistic around -- and live to tell about it.