The highly publicized war against drunk driving -- waged this past year by mothers, lawmakers, judges, juries and the police -- has racked up impressive victories in the Washington area.

Highway deaths in 1982 declined in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, where laws against driving under the influence of alcohol were toughened. At the same time, arrests of drunk drivers have increased sharply.

In the District this year, 36 people -- the lowest figure in at least a decade -- had died in traffic accidents as of Tuesday. Alcohol-related deaths in Maryland fell 30 percent while arrests of drunk drivers were up 50 percent. Highway deaths in Virginia declined 14 percent.

During Christmas weekend, as police in all three jurisdictions beefed up patrols, there was one alcohol-related death in the Washington area, compared to seven over the 1981 Christmas weekend.

"The word is out. We are out there to get people and as a result we have reduced fatalities," says Robert M. Goldstein, director of the D.C. police alcohol countermeasures and traffic services.

Throughout the Washington area, there may never have been such a bad year to be drunk at the wheel.

In Northern Virginia, a drunk driver involved in a head-on collision that killed three persons was convicted in September of second-degree murder. The conviction was the first in the state on that serious charge in an alcohol-related traffic case.

In Maryland, a drunk driver involved in a crash that killed five members of a Montgomery County family was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In the District, police began a first-in-the-nation mandatory breath test for all drivers stopped for moving violations. Any driver who refuses the test can be arrested.

Despite tough new laws and aggressive enforcement, some drivers continue to drink and drive. John T. Hanna, director of the Virginia Department of Transportation Safety, says only one in 2,000 drunk drivers is ever caught. One such driver slipped through the enforcement net last weekend in the Washington area.

Donald W. Jewell, 33, who ran an insect exterminating business, threw a party at his Manassas house on the night before Christmas Eve. Friends who saw him at the party described him as drunk and "having a hard time talking."

In the middle of the party, Jewell stormed outside and drove off in his black 1979 Chevrolet pickup truck. He headed south at 70 miles an hour on a 55-mile-an-hour, two-lane road, police said.

Jewell had a record of drinking and bad driving. In California in 1969 he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. Near Hodges, S.C., in 1975 he ran a stop light and crashed into a car, killing three persons. A blood-alcohol test showed that Jewell was under the influence of alcohol at the time. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison.

Four years later, after he'd moved north to Mathews, Va., Jewell was convicted of breaking and entering and sentenced to five years in prison. From prison, Jewell wrote Circuit Court Judge John DeHardit: "I am an alcoholic and I need and want help with this so I can be a man. I also know that if I don't get help with my drinking I will be back in prison."

About 10:30 p.m. a week ago today, Jewell lost control of his pickup rounding a curve. Police said Jewell tried to pull his truck back on the road but it went into a roll, taking up both lanes of Rte. 234 near Manassas. It stopped rolling when it smashed into a pickup coming from the opposite direction.

"He had the whole highway covered. It looked like a wall coming at me. It scared the daylights out of me. I'm still scared," William E. Parker Jr., 39, the driver of the other pickup, said yesterday.

Parker, who escaped with a strained back from the crash that totaled his pickup said he was lucky.

"When I knew anything, he was rolling at me. If I hadn't got in the ditch, he'd a killed me too," Parker said.

Jewell died of what a medical examiner called "multiple severe injuries."

To head off this kind of driver before an accident can occur, police in Maryland set up "sobriety roadblocks" over the Christmas weekend and plan to do so again this weekend.

Under a three-month program authorized earlier this month by Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, the roadblocks are set up to catch drunk drivers who "absolutely don't think they can be caught," said Sgt. Ray Cotton.

"State Police stopped 2,000 cars over the weekend and we arrested four drivers," Cotton said. "We don't consider this a defeat, however. We are making believers out of people. The fact that we aren't arresting that many people is a sign that awareness of drunk driving is working."

In Montgomery County, along a flare-brightened stretch of Montgomery Village Avenue, county police on one recent holiday night checked an estimated 350 drivers between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. They arrested no one.

"I don't think anybody had visions of locking up hordes of people," said Sgt. Owen J. Lennon, surveying the line of backed-up holiday travelers. "This is primarily a deterrent."

The mood on both sides of the spot check remained friendly. Police officers asked drivers if they had had anything to drink, then told those who said "no" or "just one" to "get home safely and thank you for cooperating."

As the night grew later and colder, some officers became impatient.

One policeman asked a glamorously dressed young woman to pull off the road for a test. "Recite the alphabet," she was told.

"Are you serious? That's what I get for being honest with you guys and telling you I had two drinks," she said, shivering in her strapless, sequined top, and then passed the test.

Maryland police say they can do little about those drivers who choose to avoid roadblocks by turning around and driving away from them.

"As a general rule," says Sgt. Cotton, "we would not approach an individual who turns around from a checkpoint, unless he does it illegally."

When area police do arrest someone for drunk driving, new laws require stiffer penalties.

In the District, persons arrested with blood alcohol levels at 0.1 percent or higher can now be convicted of driving while intoxicated even without evidence of impaired driving ability. The law doubles penalties for those who refuse to take breath or blood tests and sharply increases fines for repeat drunk-driving offenders.

In Maryland, where the drinking age this year was raised from 18 to 21, second offenders no longer can avoid conviction by receiving probation. Blood tests are mandatory in fatal accidents, and police can confiscate for 120 days the license plates of any repeat drunk driver.

In Virginia, first offenders can no longer erase their convictions by entering a rehabilitation program. Second offenders face an automatic 48 hours in jail, and a third conviction requires a minimum of one month in jail and possibly lifetime revocation of a driver's license.

The target of this crackdown is drunk driving, not drunks. Accordingly, two local governments, one hospital and one volunteer group have come up with programs that permit tipplers to ride home -- in a cab -- for free.

Montgomery County's Dial-a-Ride program fielded 50 calls and sent out 45 cabs on Christmas Day. The big night, however, will be New Year's Eve when 400 calls and 300 pick-ups are expected, according to Jerry Freed at Dial-a-Ride.

"We get people trying to make reservations before they go out and drink too much," Freed said. "We make them aware it's for people already in trouble."