The worst traffic accident involving a drunken driver in the nation's history ought to prompt considerable soul-searching on the part of safety officials throughout the country.

First, it should prod various states to reappraise their laws on drunken driving to make sure they really are as tough as they need to be.Second, it should alert various private groups to potential safety problems associated with older buses as well as prompting states to make sure their safety standards for such vehicles are adequate.

The shocking accident happened last Saturday night when a church bus collided with a pickup truck that was being driven on the wrong side of the road near Carrollton, Ky. After the collision, the fuel tank of the bus ruptured and the vehicle burst into flames, killing 27 people from smoke inhalation.

The driver of the pickup truck - who previously had been convicted of drunken driving - has been charged with 27 counts of murder after a test determined he had nearly two and a half times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. The prosecutor says he will press for the death penalty.

The mishap might not have occurred if Congress had passed a bill it is now belatedly beginning to consider. The bill would encourage states to lift immediately the driver's license of anyone caught driving with too high a blood-alcohol level. About half the states lack such a provision.

Does such a penalty sound too stringent? If so, consider the fact that in some European countries the penalties for drunken driving are much more stern and swift than they are in the U.S.

Likewise, the accident at Kentucky might not have been as serious if the bus involved had adhered to tougher safety standards.

Sadly, this particular bus was built only months before more rigorous standards took effect in 1977. Those standards required improvements in the structures of large school buses, including crash-resistant steel cages around fuel tanks to prevent explosions in crashes and construction standards to prevent separation of the roof and side panels.

Most buses built since 1977 are said to be reasonably safe and offer adequate protection for their occupants. But plenty of the older buses, often purchased by church groups, Boy Scouts, and day care centers, are still on the road. The director of the National Transportation Safety Board's safety program believes many such buses are not up to safety standards, including requirements for drivers. Maybe states should take a closer look at buses used by private groups.

With the loss of 27 lives - mostly those of teenagers - in just this one accident, a horrible price has been paid for laxity. The price will be even more exorbitant if this episode doesn't teach American to get tougher on safety standards and on drunken driving.