U.S. auto makers are outspending the insurance industry in a state-by-state lobbying battle to stop the drive to put airbags and other automatic crash protection devices into passenger cars sold in this country.

The car companies will spend $15 million this year -- and more than triple that amount in the next three years -- to persuade all 50 state legislatures to pass laws requiring drivers to wear seat belts in cars in motion.

If legislatures representing two-thirds of the nation's population pass the "mandatory use laws" on seat belts by 1990, auto makers could escape a federal order to put automatic crash protection systems in all cars produced in 1989 for the 1990 model year.

The chief lobbying group for the auto makers is Detroit-based Traffic Safety Now. Insurance companies and consumer groups opposing the auto makers' campaign are represented by the Washington-based National Coalition to Reduce Car Crash Injuries, which hopes this year to raise $25,000 to wage its fight.

Some of the coalition's lobbyists complained privately yesterday that they were taking a beating in the legislative fight, partly because of the huge amounts of money the car companies are spending and partly because, they said, the insurance companies seem to be in disarray.

The coalition said the problem is in the Department of Transportation ruling last July 11 that gave state legislatures the option of passing mandatory use laws or, in effect, allowing the federal government to impose a rule requiring the installation of automatic crash protection systems in passenger cars.

"The insurance industry does not want to be perceived as being against mandatory use laws, because those laws can save lives. This is a very difficult either-or situation that the DOT has put everyone in; and it puts us in a very untenable position," one insurance industry source said.

Thomas H. Hanna, TSN president, yesterday agreed that his opponents are in a dilemma. But he said it is their fault. "We at TSN are a one-purpose organization, and that purpose is to get all states to pass good mandatory use laws, regardless of the outcome" of the Transportation Department's final decision on passive restraints, Hanna said.

Hanna said that most of the cars on U.S. roads today already have seat belts that could provide immediate occupant protection, which is why mandatory use laws "make sense. This puts some of those people who say they are safety advocates in the peculiar position of being 'anti-safety,' " he said.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Diane K. Steed told a House subcommittee this week that the DOT rule is not "pitting one form of occupant protection against another. That's a fallacy."