Q. My wife and I have had a running argument on whether or not it is safe for children to ride unrestrained in the back portion (luggage area) of a station wagon or van. I agree that restrained is best, but I wonder if there is not some safe way for children (especially older children) to ride safely in the back portions of station wagons.

We would appreciate your comments on this subject, including whether or not you would allow your children to ride unrestrained in the back seat of a van.

A. Most of the advice you read here comes from hindsight. Have I let my children ride unrestrained in the back of a station wagon? Yes. Would I do it again? No. That's because the rest of this advice comes from other people's experience. The back of a wagon or a van may be roomy, but otherwise it's the same as the front of a van or any other car. Without restraints it can be dangerous even fatal.

Even though children weigh more than babies, in an accident they still fly through the air with enormous speed and hit with a terrible impact.

It's time, perhaps, to imagine what you would do if a drunk driver suddenly cut across the center lane, straight at you, and the lanes to your right were occupied. At what point would you yell to your kids to fasten their seat belts?

If your children had been old enough to go to Vietnam, you would have worried about them every blessed day, like all parents, yet we lose more than 50,000 people a year on the highway.

It is a tragedy when a child dies at any age but the death of an older child can bring particular anguish, for the parent knows what he might have been. Even the injury of a child would devastate you if you felt you had put your child's comfort ahead of his safety. That would be guilt with a capital G.

Most people, of course, don't have automobile accidents, at least not more than one or two in a lifetime. However, it is a parent's job to protect his children as much as possible against this and all accidents. It is because of this protection that most accidents and illnesses don't happen at all.

The caution you and your wife take in the car, both of yourselves and your children, will make them more cautious as teen-agers, at least most of the time. What else will make your young driver wait long enough to fasten her seatbelt? How else will your college freshman refuse another beer if he's driving?

In the meantime, please have the dealer install the extra seatbelts you need, even though the manufacturer didn't have such foresight--or such high stakes, nor did he know that the wagon would be bought to transport a family rather than the tools of someone's trade. There's no point in passing the buck when a child's safety is involved.

Until then there is only one way for your children to play freely in the back of your station wagon: You have to park it first.