THE LAST BLASTS of the vacation season get underway with good news from traditionally grim sources: Traffic safety authorities report that the final count of highway deaths in 1998 showed a drop in alcohol-related fatalities to fewer than 16,000 for the first time in recent years. That's no reason to party on the road to this holiday weekend's destinations. But a combination of safety campaigns, tough law enforcement and some changes in social habits does seem to have contributed to the downturn.

Karolyn Nunnallee, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, notes that deaths from driving under the influence have been cut 40 percent since her organization was founded. But the tolls are still way too high. The National Safety Council's estimate of all traffic deaths for this weekend is 468 -- with 53 percent of them alcohol-related. Meanwhile, old-fashioned finger-wagging condemnations of drinking have been dropped in favor of more realistic appeals to common sense. MADD and other highway safety groups urge that those who drink designate non-drinking drivers.

The other year-round lifesaving measures apply as well: buckling up, obeying speed limits, driving courteously and getting adequate sleep before driving long distances.

For this particular weekend, a postscript for beachgoers: Thanks to Dennis, the surf has been spectacular to watch but treacherous to swim in. Local authorities will be issuing warnings that deserve especially close attention.

End of reminders. The final flings of summer ought to be fun -- followed by many happy returns.