The federal government got into the Highway building business while the ink was still wet on the Constitution, but until this year it had never occurred to anyone to use money from the national treasury to fill in pot-holes. The care and cure of potholes has traditionally been regarded as a local responsibility.

Now, however, ungrateful states and cities are telling Washington they were tricked into taking money to build all these highways and bypasses; no one remined them they would be responsible for upkeep. It's all your fault. Uncle Samuel, and besides a Russian flu epidemic, there is a pot-hole pandemic. They're appearing faster than pimples on an adolescent's chin.

In all this discussion you never hear a word in favor of the pothole, which, if allowed to go on multiplying may do more for highway safety than the seat belt. People drive slower on rotten roads, if not to protect themselves, then to protect their automobiles.

It's a known fact that you are less likely to get killed or injured in a collision involving two cars going 30 m.p.h. than in a wreck involving two vehicles doing twice that speed. There are no known facts about the efficacy of seat belts or air bags in preventing loss of life or serious injury.

Our knowledge or lack of it about how driver protection devices work under real highway condition derives from studies of 11,000 tow-away accidents, that is accidents serious enough to require that one of the cars had to be haulted to the garage. But of these 11,000 accidents only 106 actually caused a death or a serious injury. Of the 106 accidents, in only 10 were the occupants of the car using a seat belt; in 16 others shoulder belts were in use. On the basis of these teeny-weeny numbers it's impossible to come to any conclusion, one way or the other.

For better answers more research is needed, but that's expensive. To get on to the scene to observe a seriously injurious accident means running after anywhere from 100 to 1,000 nonserious ones. Since it has been estimated to cost $1,000 for each accident chase, it will cost many, many millions to get some halfway, decent information on this subject of endless and irksome controversy.

Even with better statistics, the idea underlying seat belts and other propective devices is mildly absurd. It presupposes it makes sense for people to dash about hither and thither at murderous speeds encapsulated in a ton or two of steel, and expect aluminum and high impact plastic to do it safely.

No air bag ever designed - and incidentally there's no data on them at all - can be expected to protect people from the consequences of such high speed behavior. The lower the speed the safer the car's occupants, and for the proof of that theorem we have the drop in the death rates during the gasoline crisis of a couple of years ago.

The remains of that interesting experiment are to be seen on our nation's highways. They are signs saying 55 is the limit, although you may not have noticed them if you flashed by cruising at a cool 80.

The lower limit is being massively disregarded, thus emphasizing the fact that we not only would rather be fast than safe, but we have no compunction about breaking the laws to do it. Wheter or not we were turned into speedomaniacs by auto company advertising or wheter we demanded more and more speed by our actions in the market place, as a people we have made our choice: We want to go fast. Neither our own physical well-being, the catastrophic social and economic costs of knocking each other off on the highways, nor the rightly suspect pleas of patriotism and fuel conservation by elected officials impresses us. We want to go fast.

In their resistance to the installation of these doubtful safety devices the auto manufacturers have insisted, although to no avail, that the primary cause of highway carnage was the people driving the cars, not the cars themselves. Many of us have refused to listen, finding it easier to dismiss them as grouchy and greedy. They no doubt are, but on this point they may also be right.

It's not that Americans are suicidal. We demand to go fast and we'd like to be safe, and if we can't have both, well, just you watch this baby get her tail down the highway. We'll pay for driver education courses in the high schools, although there's no reason to think the millions spent on that foolishness ever saved a live. Our support will even be enlisted for redesigning older roads to make them "safe" at a cost of billions and soem of us are willing to pay for airbags in our cars.

But when it gets down to the basic vroom, vroom, we're going to fill up the potholes because we'd rather break a leg than an axle. Nevertheless, it's nice to know that anytime we want we can go safe and go cheap.