Which is more of a threat to society: petty theft and shoplifting or drunken driving? The answer is obvious. Clearly, the danger to life and limb and the potential property damage is far greater from the intoxicated motorist.

That being the case, why is the drunken driver in Utah treated more leniently than the thief? This is so, even though the state has what are considered some of the tougher drunken driving laws in the nation.For example, petty thievery and drunken driving are both classified as misdemeanors. But a third conviction for petty theft suddenly becomes a felony, while the intoxicated driver is still charged with a misdemeanor, no matter how many times he may be arrested or convicted.

State Sen. Winn Richards, D-Ogden, believes it is time for society to declare that driving under the influence, or DUI, is a criminal activity, not a social one with slightly naughty overtones. People's lives are at risk.

Richards has pre-filed a bill for the 1990 Legislature that would make a third drunken driving conviction within a 10-year period a third-degree felony with a mandatory 720-hour (30 days) jail sentence, with the time to be served consecutively. None of this weekend-in-jail business.

The proposal makes sense. A felony is a serious charge, but so is drunken driving, and it ought to be treated as such. As Richards argues, it should be in the same category as aggravated assault.

The only drawback to the Richards bill appears to be the 10-year time frame. That is stretching the problem over a very long time. It would seem to make more sense - and would get the worst offenders - if a felony would be mandated by three convictions in a three- to five-year period.

Getting after dangerous drunken drivers before they kill or injure someone makes far more sense than waiting until there is a dead victim before the law comes crashing down with felony charges.