Raymond Peck had no professional knowledge about automobile safety when President Reagan appointed him director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He knew about the coal business, having been an official for the National Coal Association.

Now it turns out that in addition to being unknowledgeable about highway safety, he knows little about the art of deregulating, presumably one of the team skills of the Reagan administration.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently overturned Peck's October 1981 decision to drop NHTSA's regulation requiring that new cars be equipped with air bags or other automatic crash protection devices. In the recall notice of this defective decision, one of the three judges said that Peck's ruling "appears to be nothing more than a determined effort to achieve a particular goal without regard to the facts."

Another judge, calling the decision "arbitrary and illogical," said that NHTSA is free to pursue "reasoned decision-making" that could lead to eliminating the requirement for automatic restraints, "but it may not reject 12 years of preparation for such a standard until it does so."

The court's message to Peck couldn't have been clearer: Back off, hit man. Peck's role was little more than that. Reagan campaigned with promises of eliminating the rule for automatic restraints. To him, air bags symbolized government intrusion gone wild: The feds are going to protect us whether we like it or not. First it was those nuisance ignition interlock devices (actually a flop introduced by the Ford Motor Co. but wrongly blamed on Ralph Nader). And now it's these contraptions.

As much as Reagan disliked welfare queens driving around in Cadillacs, he didn't want them, or anyone else, to be kayoed when an air bag explodes out of the steering wheel when the car hits a bump.

So went the argument that Peck was charged with putting into law. That he himself would hit a bump, with the wheels flying off, was predictable. The case against automatic restraints has always been weak. The "12 years" mentioned by the Court of Appeals refer to the exhaustive testing that air bag technology had been subjected to since 1970. Even engineers working for the automobile companies stopped questioning the reliability of air bags.

With the technology beyond rational attack, the argument shifted: So what if air bags work, the government has no business pushing them onto the public. The auto companies were comfortable with this approach. Down the years, after all, they had been using it in resisting most other safety regulations that Congress empowered the government to propose.

By this logic, the feds are the troublemakers -- not the manufacturers who advertised their excessively powered, unsafely designed and poorly constructed vehicles as fun machines that every normal American should crave.

Only last week, when the court was discussing a technology that would probably have prevented more than 100,000 deaths if it had been installed when the government first proposed it 12 years ago, the Ford Motor Co. revealed its thrall to a fantasy world. In double full-page ads, it told of its joy in getting back to racing after a 10-year absence. Ford, it seems, has a new Mustang that uses "turbocharging and four valves per cylinder to produce a staggering 560-horsepower from the small 1.7-liter engine. Which gives the Mustang a top speed of 185 mph."

The ad promised that what Ford learns on the raceways--knowledge it calls "refinements"--will be passed on to its customers. This fun-and-games surrealism is as removed from the reality of highway safety as Peck's belief that he could take a head-on collision with the law and stroll away unmarked.

The effect of his October decision was to deny safety-conscious citizens the option of buying a car that greatly increases their chances of surviving an accident. Now the public must wait--and risk more death and injury--while NHTSA under Peck figures its next legal ploy.

All that's cheering about any of this is that a fair number of NHTSA officials, who were on hand before Peck the hit man arrived, are elated by the Court of Appeals' decision. They hope to be free to get on with government service at its best--protecting lives.