In a letter a few days ago to Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, consumer-advocate Ralph Nader lambasted him for failing to ensure that traffic-safety gains will be "anywhere near as great" in the next 25 years as those stimulated in the last 25 years by Nader's now-classic expose of the dangers of General Motors Corp.'s Corvair, "Unsafe at Any Speed."

Nader is incensed that the DOT won't recall the Suzuki Motor Co.'s Samurai, Ford Motor Co.'s Bronco II and the Chrysler Corp.'s Jeep CJ that Nader's experts say have an excessive rollover tendency. But Nader hasn't yet burned the danger of these vehicles into the public's consciousness -- as he did with the Corvair and Volkswagen's Beetle -- because he can't grab the media's attention the way he did years ago.

Congress responded in 1966 to "Unsafe at Any Speed" with the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act. Since then, the fatality rate in cars dropped from 5.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles to 2.2 in 1989. That's the difference between 46,000 fatalities and the 120,000 there would have been at the old rate.

Until "Unsafe at Any Speed," American auto companies paid attention only to power and speed, but not to safety, which -- according to the industry's conventional wisdom -- "doesn't sell."

Nader changed all of that. He survived a GM investigation into his personal life designed to discredit him, for which it later was forced to apologize and pay $425,000 in damages. That money enabled Nader to set up his Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

Even more important, Nader and "Nader's Raiders" -- a term coined by former Washington Post writer William Greider -- sensitized the public to the fact that as consumers, they would have to struggle to protect their health and safety in all aspects of their existence. He tries to convince consumers that they can, in fact, fight City Hall.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nader played a key role in developing the basic legislative authority for today's consumer and environmental movements. Beyond the motor-vehicle safety laws, there were important amendments to the Freedom of Information Act in 1974; the Occupational Safety and Health Act; and legislation affecting oil pipelines, flammable fabric, product safety, toxic substance, drinking water safety and meat and poultry inspections -- all in response to pressure from consumer groups.

"But when you can't get business, the regulatory agencies or the media {to support consumer-protection laws}, it's frustration time," Nader said in an interview.

In his letter to Skinner, Nader spelled out 16 separate new auto standards, including full use of air bags, that he claims could save an additional 12,000 lives a year. His targets range from anti-lock brakes for heavy trucks to more protection for pedestrians. He accuses the current generation of auto-industry writers and reporters of ignoring these issues.

Nader -- still regularly hammered by many business groups as a dangerous re-regulator -- said that in the '90s he will broaden his attention to new fields, although problems relating to safety, pollution, health, over medication, deceptive advertising and other old Nader standbys will still be important.

In the next couple of years, he intends to focus heavily on consumer problems with the banking, savings and loan, utility and insurance industries. For example, he backs legislative proposals by Reps. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) to require banks to enclose a notice with statements to their customers six times a year, inviting them to join state-chartered consumer groups.

Another theme will be closer work with government- procurement agencies to generate support for the activities of his multiple consumer-advocacy organizations. He noted that it was the General Services Administration's willingness to buy 5,300 Fords equipped with air bags that gave impetus to the current popularity of the air bag, long fought by the industry convinced that "safety doesn't sell."

Nader credits Ford's Washington representative, Jerry ter Horst, for a role in convincing Ford executives to buck the conventional wisdom and give air bags a try. When the GSA placed the order, Ford was ready to sell air-bag-equipped cars, and GM and Chrysler, which couldn't bid, needed crash programs to catch up.

And Nader, now 56, is beginning to pay more attention to the elderly, who have accumulated political power sufficient to protect their interests in Medicare and Social Security, but not, in Nader's view, enough to avert cultural deprivation. He's started a program called "ageless living" to help make the lives of the elderly more meaningful.

My sense after talking with him is that all the organized corporate opposition only confirms Nader's belief in himself and the missionary conviction that he is doing essential work. As a matter of fact, I think he half enjoys being the target of so many special-interest groups. Rebuffed, at times, for pushing "a losing cause," Nader laughed: "I specialize in losing causes."