THE SLAUGHTER on the highways makes them bloodier than the battlefields of most wars. Drunken driving is the special culprit. In Sunday's paper, reporter Joseph D. Whitaker set out the facts: One person is killed every 23 minutes in a drunken driving crash. In the past decade, four times as many Americans died in these crashes as were killed in Vietnam. One out of two Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related auto accident. If these statistics do not convince you that drunk driving ought to be regarded as the nation's No. 1 crime problem, go back and read Mr. Whitaker's account of the lives of innocent people taken by drink on the road.

Yet drunk driving is generally regarded as a trivial offense by judges, prosecutors and -- if juries are a proper cross section -- society as a whole. Burglars and auto thieves go to jail; drunk drivers who have killed someone seldom do. Maybe drunk drivers don't belong in jail, as some judges argue, especially now that the jails are about full. But they don't belong on the highways, either.

The simple truth is that of all the criminal offenses on the books, drunk driving is one where fear of punishment can make a difference. Most drunk drivers are, as one judge put it, "social drinkers who went a little overboard. They're not alcoholics or criminals." That is precisely the kind of person who can be deterred if the punishment is harsh, swift and sure.

Punishments short of jail terms can be imposed. Why not automatically suspend, for a year or more the driving privilege of every convicted drunken driver? Why not revoke that privilege permanently after a second conviction? Why not let drunken drivers inhabit the local jails, instead of the local bars, on Saturday nights? If the idea could be implanted in the minds of those "social drinkers" that a drunk driving conviction meant 52 Saturday nights in jail and 52 weeks without a license, the number of drunks on the highways just might diminish.

Law makers and enforcers are too often tolerant: "But for the grace of God, there go I." The Maryland legislature, for example, is hesitating now over a far less Draconian set of bills designed to make it easier to catch and convict drunk drivers. Until the idea is accepted that drunk driving is a major crime, not a social offense, the daily highway slaughter will continue. Think about it: one of every 100 babies born today will die in an alcohol-related automobile crash.