Starting in the Nixon administration, the government gave a top priority to so-called passive restraints -- air bags or automatic belt systems that protect a car's front-seat occupants with no action on their part.

Now, 11 years later, General Motors Corp. has retracted its pledge to offer air bags as an extra-cost option on its large 1982 cars and will make the belts standard equipment instead. GMsays the bags will be an option on 1983 models, either its mid-size or newly "downsized" large cars.

GM's decision aroused the wrath of Ralph Nader and Joan B. Claybrook, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Department of Transportation.

Their gravest charge -- flatly repudiated by GM -- is that in a "short-sighted business decision," the world's largest automaker is refusing to use the technology, which it pioneered, to prevent thousands of highway deaths and disabling injuries. GM says the less costly automatic belts will provide just as much safety as the air bags.

The admiration of Nader and Claybrook for air bags is shared by William T. Coleman Jr., who was secretary of the DOT in the Ford administration. He has said if they were in all cars they would "probably save over 12,000 lives annually and prevent or reduce in severity over 100,000 moderate-to-critical injuries per year."

He contended in an interview that if his plan for a demonstration program hadn't been sidetracked by President Carter's appointees, a great many air-bag equipped cars would be on the roads today.

His claim, angrily rejected by Claybrook, raises questions about the effectiveness of the regulatory process. In addition, the decade-long episode raises questions about the performance of the industry in serving the public interest and in letting a foreign producer, Mercedes-Benz, take the lead in air bags: The devices will be standard equipment on all U.S. versions of these very expensive cars.

The charge against GM made by Nader and Claybrook is based mainly on these points:

Conventional lap- and shoulder-belt systems have a high potential of reducingreducing highway fatalities (51,000 in 1979) and injuries if they are used. But only 14 percent of drivers and passengers actually buckle up.

The automatic belts, which wrap themselves around around a drive or passenger when he or she enters the car and shuts the door, have a far higher potential of reducing the toll. But they've been bypassed as an unacceptable nuisance in about 10 percent of the Volkswagen Rabbits and Chevrolet Chevettes in which they were an extra-cost option, and, according to Claybrook, perhaps half of them would be circumvented were they to become standard equipment.

Air bags, hidden behind the dashboard, are no nuisance at all. Unlike belts, they spread crash forces ever the entire body and prevent neck and abdominal injuries.

GM's customers as shown by its own surveys, strongly prefer air bags over belts. Edward N. Cole, who as president of GM from 1967 to 1974 led its development of the cushions, said in early 1977 that the government should require their bags installation in all new cars. A few months later, GM auto safety director David E. Martin told the DOT that "the passive belt may be looked on unfavorably by a significant number of peope, leading them to disconnect the system."

GM sold to the public 10,000 large 1974 through 1976 Oldsmobiles, Buicks and Cadillacs equipped with air bags. In these cars which have clocked more than 700 million miles, the rate of fatalities and serious injuries has been cut "by nearly one-half" from normal levels Claybrook says. Owners got substantial discounts from some insurers. Two or three bags inflated inadvertently.

Both GM and Ford had air-bag development programs in the late 1960s. In 1970, both companies announced that they would have the devices on all of their cars by the 1975 model year. Ford later dropped its program, and Claybrook says GM didn't promote sales of the bag-equipped 1974 through 1976 models.

Under the original DOT requirement, passive restraints would have been required in 1972. But the issue was still awaiting action by the DOT in 1976, when Coleman was secretary.

Over angry protests from Nader and Claybrook, then an aide to the consumer advocate, Coleman declined to make passive restraints mandatory. Instead, he persuaded three manufacturers to sign contracts to create annual production capacity for about 221,000 units for two years, to have equipped cars in more than 10,000 dealers' hands for the 1980 model year, and to charge buyers only as much as the devices would cost if mass-produced for cars.

GM agreed to build annual capacity for 150,000 full-front units listing at $100 each, Ford for 70,000 driver-only units costing about half as much, and Mercedes for 750 units the first year and 1,500 the second.

In 1977, however, Secretary Adams ruled that passive restraints -- either air bags or automatic belts -- would be mandatory, although he set the lead time at four to six years: large cars, 1982 models; mid-size, 1983; and all others, 1984s.

With that, the project collapsed because the companies invoked their right to get out of the contract if the government were to mandate passive restraints while the project was under way.

Coleman, now a Washington lawyer who has represented Ford on some matters, called Adams' order "a grandstand play," partly because it postponed the decreed advent of the restraints and freed the companies to offer belts instead of air bags. Noting that the standard won't take effect until after the 1980 election, Coleman said "I laughed like hell."

Coleman and Michael L. Browne, who was his aide for air bags, take a grim view of the new situation. This may mean that air bag technology is "in danger of being lost forever," Browne said.

Claybrook rejecting Coleman's version, said that Adams had pleaded futility with the manufacturers to continue the project, but had to impose the mandatory standard to assure that the project wouldn't become an excuse for postponing passive restraints perhaps to 1985.

The four-to-six-year lead time for the standard had been proposed by GM, which assured Adams that it would make air bags an option a year early -- on large 1981 models.

In 1979, GM, claiming problems in protecting children, said it had to delay. In December 1979, however, GM said that the problems were solved and that it would offer air bags on 1982large cars. Last Monday, it announced the postponement to the 1983 models. This spares GM such costs as would be incurred in fitting air bags in cars that will be replaced by smaller versions after only one year on the market.