The automobile accounts for some 90 percent of all personal travel in the United States, so the government figures it might not be a bad idea to make it as safe as possible.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been conducting a Research Safety Vehicle Program in an attempt to demonstrate to the public the level of performance it can expect from a car.

"A major objective of the program is to demonstrate that buyers of small cars do not have to sacrifice safety and comfort to gain fuel economy," according to a status report written earlier this year.

As part of the program, several firms were given contracts to build safe and efficient cars using the best available technology. One of the more interesting vehicles was manufactured by Minicars of Goleta, Calif.

First off, the Minicar makes use of available plastics as well as the lightweight sheet metal and energy-absorbing foam to help absorb any crashes better than traditional materials.

Both the driver and the passenger are protected by air bags that have two separate air cells - one for rapid chest support and one for head support. Front-seat passenger are protected from crashes at speeds up to 50 miles an hour while an advanced-force safety belt protects back-seat passengers up to 40 mph.

The Minicar also employs an anti-lock braking device to combat skidding, and a futuristic radar and microprocessor system that will monitor the road ahead for impending hazards. "In the event of an unavoidable highspeed collision, braking will be accomplished automatically to reduce the impact to a survivable level," according to NHTSA.

The microprocessor also includes a "smart" cruise control system that maintains constant speeds when the road is clear, but slows down when a pre-set "safety zone" ahead is occupied by other traffic.

The biggest surprise about the Minicar is yet to come. The estimated price of the car, if produced in quantities of 300,000 per year, is $3,925 - less than most of its existing counterparts.

Air conditioning and CB radio are optional, of course.