With many a dry eye and fitting fanfare, Greater Washington dropped one nasty holiday tradition last year at this time, and here's to another jolly season without it: Gone for the first time in memory were alcohol-related deaths or injuries during the Christmas-New Year's period. This whole year has been a good one, for that matter: Alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped 22 percent, while there was a slight national increase of about 1 percent. What's making the difference? Various reports have it that people are drinking less; but even if they aren't, more people around town -- some with badges and many more with good sense and compassion for their under- the-weather friends -- are working to separate drinkers from drivers.

It's not a call for goody-goodies, either. Gone for the most part are the finger-waving sermons about the evils of drink, even if more people may be discovering the comforts of sobriety. The concern is about getting from one place to another. This year as last, the authorities will be out there with "sobriety checkpoints," which will be no obstacle or interruption for any group that has left the driving to a nondrinker. Not quite gone -- but apparently disappearing -- is any stigma attached to letting someone else do the driving. If only more people would give up the keys willingly or call for a ride. On this point, too, there are all sorts of free-ride services being offered over the holiday season -- part of a public-service campaign sponsored by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the American Automobile Association. The combination to dial: 522-FREE.

Still here -- and why not? -- is the office party. But last year and now too, employers are urging each other to serve non-alcoholic alternatives and food and to schedule their gatherings at lunch or in early afternoon, perhaps with some entertainment or activities to get the emphasis off drinking. They also are separating charges for food and drink, which avoids penalizing non-drinkers or slow drinkers. Some even use a free-ticket system instead of an open bar, so there is some monitoring of those who may overdrink.

Can last year's record be matched? That would be a holiday spirit worth preserving.