A controversial book published in 1965, "Unsafe at Any Speed," helped prod Congress into passing the nation's first auto safety law.

A serious air-pollution emergency that gripped Washington in 1970 as Congress was debating air-pollution legislation led to a dramatic toughening of auto emission regulations.

Another milestone in motor vehicle regulation occurred this week as the Reagan administration announced 34 changes in safety and environmental controls on cars and trucks.

Vice President Bush and other administration officials said that the decisions will not harm the environment or make cars less safe. Instead, they will lower the costs of motor vehicles and raise the profits of the manufacturers, the administration said.

But leading consumer attack on General Motors Corp.'s Corvair in 1965 created the auto safety movement, charged that the Reagan administration has turned its back on the government's reponsibility to make cars safer and cleaner.

"In effect, they have repealed the motor vehicle safety and emission laws. They are going to do othing, period, zero, for four years. There isn't an ounce of effort on their pat to see how the health and safety standards need to be strengthened," Nadar said.

Richard Ayres of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the administration's policy "really is a case of giving the auto industry the regulatory advantages it has sought for a long time, which have little if anything to do with its financial problems."

The council is particularly concerned about the proposed relaxation of controls on gasoline-powered trucks and diesel-powered cars and trucks, he said, adding "those are the two types of vehicles that are essentially unregulated."

Pollution from diesel vehicles and heavy trucks will impose a particularly heavy burden on urban areas that already are failing to meet the healthbased goals of the Clean Air Act, Ayres said.

For Nadar, the administration's announcement marked a telling setback to his decade-long campaign to have air bags installed in passenger cars.

"We'll start again. Now comes the backlash to the backlash. If Mercedes and Volvo go with air bags, there will be more pressure," said Nader.

"There will be more product liability lawsuits -- many, many more because lawyers for victims can show that auto engineers could produce a safer car, but the companies aren't doing it," Nadar said.