The way things are going over at the Department of Transportation, they are going to have to hire a regulator to referee arguments between regulators over how to regulate.

This time they are arguing over, among other things, just how important a regulation about automobile hood ornaments is.

Hood ornaments, it seems, are just the beginning. But first, in an effort to clarify terms, NHTSA refers to hood ornaments as "Vehicle Exterior Protrusions." However, the DOT explanation of Vehicle Exterior Protrusions begins with the line: "This regulation would eliminate hood ornaments from cars."

Ordering the removal of hood ornaments "would be a cost-saving measure and would have safety implications," NHTSA contends.

"Will Cadillac and Mercedes really cut their prices?" asks DOT director of public and consumer affairs David Jewell in a memo to Secretary Brock Adams. "And imagine the fun reporters and editors can have, digging up pictures of Packard's swans and Rolls-Royce's winged ladies and poking fun at regulators who want to outlaw the last vestiges of this great tradition. I suspect there'd be more public interest in this proposal than in metric highway signs."

Apparently, all of the remaining hood ornaments in existence are spring loaded anyway, allowing them to fall over and bounce back into position-preventing possible injuries as a result of striking one.

The second area of disagreement concerns a NHTSA proposal to increase standards for child restraints in cars. The Consumer office points out that NHTSA's proposed safety standard would "eliminate about 20 percent of the presently available child restraints. There will be interest, the Consumer office contends, because this will result in an increased cost of some $14 per device to the consumer, as the least expensive devices will be eliminated.

The third controversial regulation involves a NHTSA attempt to "set performances standards for seat belts that would improve comfort, reliability, convenience and effectiveness."

The Consumer office says people don't use seatbelts because they are not comfortable and that since consumer's complain so much about seatbelt comfort, "surely a regulation aimed at increasing usage and effectiveness of seat belts. . . is a significant regulation."

Finally, there is the "Low Tire-Pressure Warning Indicator," NHTSA feels it can just quietly slip by a new regulation requiring a warning to drivers through a dashboard light when actual tire pressure dropped below a specified minimum.

"This proposal is unlikely to be costly and is not deemed controversial in any sense," NHTSA said.

Jewell disagrees. "Because the cost range for an idiot light to tell a motorist his or her tire pressure were low would be from $10 to $40 and as 10 million to 12 million new cars are produced every year, it would follow that the cost of any such regulation would meet or exceed the $100 million cutoff for regulatory analysis," he said in his memo to Adams.

In all four cases Jewell recommended that NHTSA's proposed "non-significant" regulations be classified as significant" because "the regulations could be a matter of substantial public interest or controversy."

Seems they already are.