THE SAME POLITICAL and highway-money pressures that have been moving many states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 are being felt by the District of Columbia -- only more so, what with the 18-to-21 set from Maryland and Virginia already swooping into the city regularly for beer and wine. A proposal before the D.C. Council would set the minimum age for any purchase of alcoholic beverages at 21. Though on first glance this measure has great appeal, it does not deal realistically or effectively with the central issue, which is drunk driving at all ages.

It is a tough call. There is no question that drunken driving -- by people of all ages -- has become a deadly menace. It is, in fact, the most frequently committed violent crime in the country. Still, the argument for simply declaring 21 a minimum has many things wrong with it at a time when society has conferred so many other responsibilities of adulthood on 18-year- olds. What about that married couple of 20-year-olds who may wish to buy a bottle of wine for home consumption, with no driving afterward? No sale? Wink at this violation? Arrest them for "possession"? There are measures that can and should be taken to separate alcohol and driving at all ages. Highway checkpoints have proved effective; why not increase them along both sides of the District's borders? What about lifting drivers' licenses in all alcohol-related cases? How about more pressures on those who sell beer, wine and hard liquor to enforce all existing drinking laws and to continue discouraging driving while under the influence? If the object is to reduce risks, drunken drivers in any age group are menaces -- and every one of them above the age of 21 is a poor example for every teen-ager.

To oppose a raising of the minimum legal drinking age is not to minimize the extremely serious issue of alcohol use by minors. But the most deadly aspect of this use is behind the wheel. Instead of tinkering with the drinking age -- and you don't hear much about raising the driving age, say, from 16 to 18 -- the concentration should be on enforcing laws that involve the combination of drinking and driving by anyone of any age.