By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated March 06, 2003 10:14 AM

A newly upbeat Nick Nolte says that being arrested last September by the California Highway Patrol for driving under the influence was the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Being out on the road drunk and driving isn’t a good thing, and I’m glad I didn’t have an accident,” the “Prince of Tides” actor, 61, tells the Associated Press.

“I was relieved when the siren came on because I knew it was over — the substance abuse, that is.”

Nolte, who claims to be doing fine now, says that he had been sober for eight years before the highly publicized incident, which took place in Malibu last Sept. 11. He also admits that he’s not proud of his actions — joking that the police mugshot of him in a Hawaiian shirt looking dirty and haggard was one of his “finest performances.”

As he concedes, “That’s just part of the problem about substance abuse, it appears at times I’m on top of it.”

Last December, Nolte pleaded no contest before Malibu Judge Lawrence Mira and was immediately sentenced to a $500 fine and three years’ probation, which included counseling and drug testing.

The jurist also warned the actor that if any conditions of his parole are violated, then six months of jail will await him. (In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dropped a second misdemeanor charge of being under the influence of a controlled substance.)

Lab tests at the time of his arrest revealed that Nolte was under the influence of the depressant GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) — also known as the “date-rape drug.”

Nolte followed his arrest by voluntarily entering Silver Hill Hospital, a Connecticut rehab facility that has previously treated such stars as Billy Joel, Liza Minnelli and Mariah Carey.