From Maine, where tougher penalties have cut the number of car accidents by 41 percent, to Florida, where 30 fewer people are dying each month on the highways, a nationwide campaign is making unprecedented progress against drunken driving.

For the first time in many holiday seasons, the dominant news is not the usual increase in highway deaths, but increasingly successful new laws and enforcement efforts to keep drunk drivers off the road. In the most aggressive jurisdictions, including the Washington area, fewer people are dying in auto accidents.

Legislatures in 18 states, including Maryland and Virginia, passed tougher drunk driving laws this year, and similar bills are pending in 14 states. Maryland and New Jersey joined 23 other states in raising their drinking age to 21 for most alcoholic beverages, reversing the trend of the early 1970s toward a lower drinking age.

A growing number of states are resorting to mandatory jail terms, stiffer fines, more frequent arrests and highway checkpoints. Congress recently voted to provide $125 million in grants to states that act aggressively against drunken drivers.

The crackdown has not been as successful in some places. Minnesota officials, for example, say most offenders know the police do not have enough manpower to arrest more than one drunken driver in 300. Fatalities in California, which initially dropped by 42 percent after stricter penalties were adopted last January, have rebounded almost to 1981 levels.

There were 49,125 traffic deaths in the United States last year, about half related to alcohol. The effort to reduce these casualties has been spurred by the friends and relatives of accident victims and citizens' groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Arizona legislators needed no such prodding. They voted overwhelmingly for stricter penalties after one of their colleagues, Sister Clare Dunn, 46, and another nun were killed by a drunken driver. Around the same time, a drunken man in Arizona crashed into a car full of boy scouts, killing several.

Since July, a first conviction for drunken driving in Arizona has cost a minimum of 24 hours in jail, a $250 fine and a 90-day license suspension. A second offense carries at least a 60-day jail term, and a third conviction can bring as much as 2 1/2 years in prison.

In Maine, half of last year's traffic deaths were rural, single-car crashes, which state police spokesman Rick Moore described as "a person driving down the road and banging into a tree." Four-fifths of the victims had been drinking, and half were men in their twenties.

The state legislature responded in September 1981 by setting a minimum $250 fine and a 45-day license suspension for a first drunken driving offense. If criminal charges are filed, it means at least 48 hours in jail. Refusal to take an alcohol test is punished by a six-month license suspension.

The result: 150 people have been killed in highway crashes this year, compared with 199 in the same period last year.

"It's a very tight law," Moore said. "People have to be prosecuted. You can't plea bargain down to reckless driving. There haven't been more arrests, so it's really the deterrence of the law. People are now thinking twice about having that extra drink."

Maine police have compiled a profile of the typical driver involved in a fatal accident: a single or divorced man in his 20s, a heavy beer drinker, driving an older-model car sometime after 10 p.m. on weekends.

Florida now requires first offenders to perform 50 hours of community service, sometimes in hospital emergency rooms where many accident victims are taken. Along with a 50-percent increase in arrests, these penalties have helped reduce this year's traffic deaths by 12 percent to 2,659, or 371 fewer than in 1981.

Maryland, which recently stopped 1,500 drivers during the first weekend of "sobriety checkpoints," has been the most aggressive enforcer of drunken driving laws. Its police expect to make 32,000 arrests this year for driving while intoxicated, compared with 15,575 in 1980.

While traffic deaths not related to drinking have decreased by only 3 to 4 percent from last year in Maryland, alcohol-related deaths have dropped 29 percent to bring the state's highway death toll down to its lowest level in 19 years. "We know in our hearts and in our statistic books that the crackdown in Maryland is really working," said state police spokesman Bill Clark.

The problem in Minnesota was that a driver whose license was revoked was allowed to stay on the road for a month or more as his case dragged on through appeals. Under a law passed this year, the offender's license is now revoked within seven days.

But public safety official Forst Lowery says the odds are still against the police. "Say a dog brings 300 of his friends into a room, they all dirty the carpet and we only punish one," Lowry said. "We have to make many more arrests before a deterrent is established."

Some officials say the key element is the certainty of punishment. New York, for example, has no mandatory jail term for drunken driving, but a new law requires judges to impose a $350 fine and revoke the offender's license for six months. Fatal night crashes in New York are down 17 percent.

"You can't plead to speeding or bald tires or something anymore," said Marcus Salm, New York's assistant director of highway safety. "We had a lot of guys who would say, 'Look, if you charge me with drunken driving, my wife will leave me and I'll lose my job, and besides, I've got a good lawyer.' "

Still, Salm acknowledged, "There are ways of getting around the mandatory penalties. Judges don't like being told what to do, and they sometimes react by telling the state what to do. They can throw the case out."

Under congressional legislation sponsored by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), each state that makes drunken driving controls a priority is now eligible for an additional 50 percent of its federal highway safety grant. To qualify, a state must take such steps as raising the drinking age to 21, eliminating plea bargaining, setting up highway checkpoints and using preliminary breath tests.

A presidential commission recently urged the states to adopt similar measures. One recommendation, already in effect in many places, is to use a blood alcohol content of .10 as the legal standard of intoxication. For a 160-pound person, this would mean drinking either five beers, five glasses of wine or three shots of whiskey in an hour.

The commission also suggested that money collected in fines be given back to local authorities to finance enforcement and education programs. This is already being done in New York, where Salm said it provides a powerful incentive for county police to join the crackdown.