Pssst. Want to know the secret ingredient that helps fuel about four of every 10 crimes committed in America?

It's booze.A new study issued this week by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says its surveys show that 40 percent of all U.S. convicts were drinking at the time of their offenses.

And that sorry situation is likely an improvement.

It says the nation is drinking less in recent years, so many alcohol-related crimes are also decreasing.

For example, the average annual consumption of alcohol was down from 40 gallons per person in 1990 to 35.9 gallons in 1995 (or still about one drink per day for every resident on average).

It said such decreases helped lead, for example, to a 29 percent reduction in the number of fatal car accidents in America that involved drinking between 1986 and 1996. Also, drunken driving arrests since 1990 have decreased 24 percent.

But the link between alcohol and crime is still huge.

For example, look at the number of deaths that alcohol helped cause through car accidents.

The Justice Department said the most recent statistics available, for 1996, showed that drivers in 23.7 percent of the 321 fatal car crashes in Utah that year had been drinking.

That was the lowest percentage in the nation, however - maybe because of the high number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah who are taught abstinence.

Nationally, 40.9 percent of all fatal car accidents involved alcohol - or 70 percent higher than in Utah. The states with the worst percentages were Texas and North Dakota, where 53 percent of fatal car accidents involved drivers who had been drinking.

And many of those drivers nationally were not just a little tipsy, they were way over the legal limit.

In fact, 30 percent of drinking drivers in fatal accidents had blood-alcohol levels over 0.20, or twice as high as the 0.10 level where a person is considered legally drunk in most states (although they are considered drunk at 0.08 in Utah).

An average male would have to drink more than 12 beers in four hours to have a blood-alcohol concentration that high.

If those statistics aren't sobering enough, here's more from the study:

- People who appeared to have been drinking committed about 39 percent the rapes and sexual assaults in the nation (according to a survey of victims).

- Victims of crimes committed by people who had been drinking suffer financial losses of about $408.1 million a year - or $834 per victim - for loss of pay and property and medical expenses.

- Inmates surveyed in state prisons reported that 38 percent of those convicted of murder had been drinking at the time of the offense, as had 44 percent of those convicted of manslaughter, 32 percent of those convicted for robbery and 40 percent of those convicted of assault.

- The total number of convicts under correctional supervision in 1996 who committed their crime after drinking was about 1.92 million people.

- About 3 million violent crimes occur each year where victims perceive the offender to have been drinking.

The statistics were prepared to assist in the upcoming 1998 National Symposium on Alcohol Abuse and Crime planned by Attorney General Janet Reno to look at policy related to drinking and crime.

But don't wait for the government to act. Use the information now to provide some extra reasons for youth to avoid drinking.

Use it to give extra excuses for family and friends of people with drinking problems to find help for them.

And for those who drink, use it as an excuse to control it carefully.

It isn't a crime to drink in America. But the study shows clearly that drinking may - and often does - lead to crime.