They're arguing again over airbags in the halls of Congress. The question is whether or not the government should force automakers to install the safety devices in new cars.

Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) has proposed one way to answer that question. He has challenged Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) to a head-on collision contest. Dicks will drive an airbag-equipped car into a concrete wall at 25 miles per hour if Shuster would do the same with a car that doesn't have an airbag.

Since Shuster has not chosen to settle the matter that way, Congress yesterday reverted back to its usual manner of resolving such disputes: competitive press conferences, leaked General Accounting Office reports, leaked responses to leaked General Accounting Office reports, studies, studies refuting studies, endorsements and, of course, accident victims who lived to tell the real story.

Yesterday's chapter in the airbag war opened with a news conference at which Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and James Broyhill (R-N.C.) and two editors of Road and Track Magazine, John Tomerlin and Dennis Simanaitis, called airbags a "potential safety disaster" and a "ripoff."

Dingell said he would be offering an amendment to the Department of Transporation appropriations bill that would ban the department from spending any funds to implement or enforce any regulation requiring that motor vehicles be equipped with an occupant restraint system other than seatbelts.

The magazine said it had commissioned an in-depth study of the devices and found them "too complex, too expensive and, at their present stage of development (they) provide far too little protection to passengers in accidents."

In addition, Dingell said he had received an as yet unpublished GAO report that is critical of the airbag and DOT's handling of the standard it has put into law ordering automakers to put airbags in 1982 cars.

For its part, DOT yesterday charged that the GAO report "contains a number of speculative and inaccurate statements," and has generally faulty analysis.

In the second news conference of the day, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook, Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.), consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Allstate Insurance Co. general counsel Donald Schaffer, an airbag manufacturer and two victims of airbag crashes joined to support the existing regulation, mandating occupant restraint systems in 1982 cars.

Claybrook said the regulation merely orders car manufacturers to put in a passive restraint system - some form of protection like airbags or automatic belt systems. There is no requirement that airbags be used, although under present technology, in certain model cars with bench-type front seats (that can seat three people), air bags are the only available system.

Then, she emphasized that a DOT study showed airbags would save up to 9,000 lives a year if used in all cars.

One of the accident victims, 64-year-old James Kirkindoll, said he was driving in a large Buick at 35 mph two years ago when he hit a Pontiac that crossed in front of him. Kirkindoll, a General Motors machinist from Detroit and resident of Dingell's home district, said "after this, I wouldn't buy a car without an airbag," because he got out of the accident unharmed. CAPTION: Picture 1, Ralph Nader, in foreground, with (from left) Joan Claybrook, Rep. James Scheuer, Ralph Rockow of Tally Industries, James Kirkendoll.; Picture 2, Rep. John Dingell, left, Road and Track's Dennis Simanaitis at news conference. by James K. W. Atherton - The Washington Post