WE WRITE before any of New Year's Eve's prospective carnage is known. But however that perilous night turns out, the overall good news is in. An aroused citizenry and responsive legislators and judges have, in the last year, brought about a transformation in the way we deal with drunk drivers. Vigorous law enforcement and stiffer and certain penalties have had a dramatic effect. Year-end statistics show an impressive decline in the number of highway deaths associated with alcohol, particularly here in the Washington area. In Maryland, alcohol-related deaths have dropped by 30 percent; in the District, by 25 percent. Arrests for drunk driving in these jurisdictions and in Virginia are up significantly. What the figures don't show, but what we are convinced is also happening, is that public awareness of the consequences of drunk driving has increased. More and more people are refusing that last one for the road, are thinking twice before sliding behind the wheel even a little bit tipsy. Even those who were never frightened by the possibility of doing harm to others are sobered by the thought of losing a driver's license or going to jail.

In Maryland, the courts are doing more than getting tough: they're getting results with a new mandatory drunk driver treatment program. Washington County Circuit Judge Daniel Moylan describes the program in the current American Bar Association Journal. All persons convicted of driving while intoxicated are interviewed before sentencing by a counselor from an alcoholism treatment organization. The counselor assesses the severity of the drinker's problem and recommends one of a number of mandatory treatment programs to the judge. These range from an eight-hour education program for those who do not have a serious problem through outpatient and weekend treatment plans right up to mandatory inpatient care for as long as a month. Almost three-quarters of the drunk drivers who have gone through the treatment program in Washington County are attending Alcoholics Anonymous regularly and are remaining abstinent.>

Judge Moylan attributes this success to two factors: the treatment is begun immediately--on the same day as the case is decided in court--and it is compulsory. It is a myth, says the judge, that only voluntary treatment will work and that a person should not be coerced into treatment. In fact, recovery rates are higher in forced treatment, where the alcoholic must face the fact of his addiction and the possibility of a severe penalty--loss of a job or a jail sentence--if he does not reform.

We have come a long way in a year. Alcohol was the cause of half the 49,000 highway fatalities in 1981, yet the problem was, in a sense, swept under the rug by a society that did not seem to have the will to crack down. In a very short time, all that has changed. Drivers who drink are now forced to accept responsibility for the damage they do. Tough treatment programs and stiff penalties are the rule, and the results have become apparent already. A new direction has been set; a good beginning has been made.