In yesterday's editions of the Washington Post, a word was dropped inadvertently from the story about automobile seat belts and airbags. The paragraph describing the fatality rate for Volkswagen Rabbits equipped with automatic seat belts should have read: "After more than one billion miles of travel in Volkswagen Rabbits equipped with automatic belts, the fatality rate for these cars was 0.78 per 100 million miles of vehicle travel compared with a fatality rate of 2.34 in Rabbits equipped with conventional safety belts," the DOT said in a press release.

A majority of the American public - 58 percent - supports federal efforts to force automakers to include passive safety restraints like air-bags and automatic seatbelts in new cars, a Department of Transportation study reveals.

But the same report, which was released yesterday, said fewer than 20 percent of the 2,000 adults interviewed used seat belts almost all of the time.

In a progress report on efforts to get automakers to build passive restraints into their cars, DOT Secretary Brock Adams and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook told reporters that four auto manufacturers have indicated plans to introduce airbags at least a year ahead of the September 1981 date mandated by the law.

In june 1977 Adams ordered automatic crash protection for automobiles on a phased-in scheduled beginning in September 1981 for 1982 model years cars. Consumer advocates criticized Adams at the time, claiming he was giving automakers too much time to comply.

DOT aslo released a progress report showing that the use of the automatic seat belt by Volkswagen had significantly reduced the accident fatally rate.

Volkswagon has sold 100,000 Rabbits with the special seat belt that automatically closes over the passengers chest as the door is closed.

"After more than one billion miles of travel in Volkswagen Rabbits equipped with automatic belts, the fatality rate for these cars was .78 per 100 miles of vehicle travel compared with a fatality rate of 2.34 in Rabbits equipped with conventional safety belts," the DOT said in a press release.

And, DOT said, after nearly 600 million miles of travel of airbag equipped cars, mostly made by General Motors for 1974 thru 1976 models, the fatality rate was .85 per 100 million miles, "about half the rate observed in full-size cars equipped with conventional belts."

Adams, who said he was pleased with HNTSA progress on the airbag and seatbelt restrictions, cited data in the study showing that while an "overwhelming majority of Americans want a passive restraint system," they are opposed to mandatory seat belt laws by 2-1 margin.

"people prefer built-in safety," said Claybrook, translating the seatbelt data. But, she pointed out, airbags only offer protection in frontal crashes, which she said account for about 55 percent of all auto accidents.

She said the survey commissioned by DOT, and performed by the public research firm of Peter D. Hart Research Associates at a cost to the government of $76,000, was designed to gauge public opinion on the advantages and disadvantages of the various passive restraint systems.

"What we are interested in," Claybrook said, "is getting people to use systems. This is the first time a safety system is being used as a marketing tool, and it is valuable to know what kind of system people will be respond to."

Other key conclusions of the study state that:

Air bags are much better than seat belts, but the public wants more information about the operation and dependability of them.

Younger people prefer airbags over even automatic seatbelts to a much greater degree than older people, who show more of a preference for seat belts.

A majority of people questioned say they would try to disconnect their automatic seatbelts if they owned a car with them.

The public is "generally favorable to government auto safety regulation, and believes that government regulators have the public's interest at heart."

Another study of seat belts done recently for NHTSA by Opinion Research Corp. showed that foreign car and small car users used seatbelts more frequently than large car owners. It also showed that twice as many Volkswagon Rabbit owners (or 70 percent) used seatbelts when they had the automatic system in the car. The remainder had disconnected them.