BETWEEN THE POLITICALLY feverish search for a quick fix and the federal pressures to succumb or lose big money, Virginia was bound to join those states raising their minimum drinking ages to 21. There are, after all, more people around the country who are older than that and who, on that account, may find it easier to punish their juniors than to zero in on drunken driving abuses by people of all ages. A selective prohibition becomes more appealing than more logical moves to deal with drinkers who drive. Add the threat of losing federal highway funds for not going to 21, and the switch becomes a shoo-in almost anywhere.

Virginia's proposal is a two-step measure that raises the beer-drinking age from 19 to 20 by July 1, 1986, and to 21 a year later. Given the relatively higher proportion of 18-to 21-year-olds involved in traffic accidents generally and drunken- driving accidents specifically, the argument for cutting off this entire age group -- drivers or not -- from any purchases of beer, wine or liquor has political appeal.

Still, we continue to see something inconsistent in pronouncing 18-year-olds adults for nearly all other purposes but not for drinking beer and wine. It would be better to separate alcohol and driving at all ages -- lift drivers' licenses in all alcohol-related driving cases, for example, and put more pressure on those who sell beer, wine and hard liquor to keep their customers out of the driver's seat. Certainly there is traffic-accident evidence to support raising the minimum age for driving to 18 as a way to end accidents involving the 16-to-18 group.

To oppose raising the minimum legal drinking age is not to minimize the serious issue of alcohol use by minors and young adults. But it is to risk forfeiting precious highway money, and lawmakers aren't about to do that now. If this approach holds, maybe states will try raising the drinking age to, say, 26 for even better results. Need we go on?