IN THE ANNALS of bureaucratic soul-baring, it was a memorable moment. In late September 1981, Raymond Peck, the director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, went before a gathering of highway safety officials with a blunt nofrills confession: "We were wrong. There are a lot of ways to disguise the meaning of it. It was a bum choice. . . the fact is that it was just a mistake."

Peck was referring to an earlier decision by his agency to eliminate the National Driver Register. Since 1960, the register functioned as a low-funded computer-assisted information bank that kept data on the nation's problem drivers. In theory, the records of chronic offenders and people whose licenses had been suspended, revoked, canceled or denied, would be available at license bureaus when over-the-counter applications were made.

By 1980, the $1.5 million a year program was working poorly. Among other things, the register lacked a rapid-response communications system to get the facts to the counter while the applicant was there -- and reject him if his record was bad. Often, wo weeks or more were needed to exchange information by mail. In September 1980, NHTSA, in a 105-page report to Congress, said the register was needed and should be improved. Peck, on the job briefly and with no previous experience in highway safety, decided in April 1981 that the register should be abolished. To budget-trimmers just warming up, the $1.5 million was a modest but respectable kill.

The story of Peck's turnaround -- his admission of wrongness -- is a conversion tale that is only one act in the larger drama that has been spun out by two of Washington's master persuaders and undeterred idealists, Ken and Fran Nathanson. For nearly seven years, the couple, who live in the Carderock Springs neighborhood between Bethesda and Potomac, Md., have been perhaps the nation's most tireless advocates for clearing the roadways of chronic offenders and drunk drivers.

Two weeks ago, when the House of Representatives passed Senate-approved legislation that included the improvement of the National Driver Register (NDR), Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the chief congressional sponsor, said the bill was "a testimonial" to the Nathansons' perseverance and vision." Oberstar said that "the beauty of the Nathansons' success is that they had nothing personal to gain from it. There is no measuring the good they have done. Countless lives will be saved."

The Nathansons' commitment to highway safety began at midday Dec. 26, 1975, when they and their daughter Kamy and son Harlan were driving from Carderock Springs to Fall River, Mass., to visit relatives during the holidays. On I-95 in Rhode Island, in rainy weather, a bus passed the Nathansons' Dodge Dart and splattered mud on the windows.Nathanson pulled to the shoulder to clean it off. Before he could drive away, a tractor-trailer careened into the back of his car. Forty-five minutes passed before an ambulance arrived to help the injured family. But by then Kamy Nathanson, sitting in the rear left seat and taking the full impact of the crash, was dead.

Kamy, 14, had been a student at Pyle Junior High School in Bethesda. She was an enthusiast for the social and religious programs at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, where the family worshiped. She was a favorite of Rabbi Joshua Haberman. A few days ago, the rabbi recalled Kamy as "a girl who was just as fresh as a warm spring day. She was a happy child, without guile, which is a rarity. At a remarkably early age, she reveled in worship. She literally pressed her parents to take her to prayer services." Kamy was buried in King David Memorial Garden in Falls Church, Va. At her synagogue and junior high school, trees were planted in her memory.

Although the family's grief was intense, it was not so encompassing that Ken Nathanson didn't wonder about the 29-year-old truck driver who killed his daughter. What he learned astonished him. The driver was under his seventh driver's license suspension from his home state of New Jersey and was driving illegally on a permit from Arizona.

"When the case was first heard in court," Nathanson recalled last week in the living room of his home, with his wife next to him and a foot-high pile of highway safety documents on the coffee table, "the judge gave him three years and suspended all but seven months. Then the driver appealed it to the state supreme court." This judge, persuaded by the defendant's lawyer that the accident was an error in judgment, dropped the punishment entirely. "He never served a day in jail nor paid a fine," Nathanson said. "We have followed his record since. He's had other violations and accidents."

As much as all this tore into Nathanson's gut, his astonishment turned to anger when he went to the Department of Transportation and learned that 10 million people were driving illegally in 1975. In 1977, when the Nathansons examined the highway safety groups, they discovered that the organizations were more interested in getting unsafe vehicles off the road than unsafe drivers. The Nathansons formed Citizens for Better Driver Records, later to become Citizens for Safe Drivers Against Drunk Drivers and Other Chronic Offenders. It was the only group of its kind in the country.

An early supporter was Jim Oberstar. He and his family lived across a cul-de-sac from the Nathansons. Kamy had been a babysitter for the Oberstar children. As a member of the House Public Works and Transportation committee, Oberstar, at the Nathansons' urging, decided that if he didn't take action in Congress to improve the register probably no one would. Oberstar investigated and found that the NDR, a small program that could have a larger impact, wasn't working well.

In July 1977, fulfilling a promise to the Nathansons, Oberstar introduced legislation to strengthen the NDR. In 1978, near the end of the congressional session, the House passed the bill. But the Senate did not. The defeat was due, in large part, to a provision for a mandatory requirement that all the states participate in the program. The Senate, lobbied by state motor vehicle administrators, saw it as another Big Brother bill.

The defeat was not total. The Senate asked the Department of Transportation to come back a year later with a study and recommendations. Oberstar told the Nathansons that when the study was issued -- as it was in September 1980 he would reintroduce legislation. In 1981, on the day that Kamy Nathanson would have celebrated her 20th birthday, Oberstar brought the bill to the House.

Instead of making it mandatory for the states to comply, the legislation called for voluntary compliance with incentives. "When we first started talking to congressmen and the Carter administration," Fran Nathanson said, "we thought the mandatory idea was great. But we saw that state officials were worried. The states wanted it voluntary. We realized that this was the way it had to go."

By this time, the Nathansons were dominating the issue with the sheer force of their drive. They testified in congressional hearings, worked the halls of NHTSA, traveled the country to speak to state highway safety groups, badgered the media, held conferences (including one at the Washington Hebrew Congregation) and set up offices. Their organization now has a national membership of 10,000.

Their work weeks often ran to 60 and 70 hours. Before their daughter's death, the Nathansons had their own lucrative advertising and public relations firm in Washington. Their accounts included several federal agencies and major trade associations. Except for a few hours of work a week, the Nathansons had given up their business. They were living on their savings. With the bill's passage they now plan to give more time to their business.

The Nathansons were able to marshal support for the obvious emotional reasons. They were in a prolonged grief-reaction, working to prevent others from having a similar tragedy happen to them. But they didn't depend on sympathy for support. They earned respect by becoming sophisticated in the art of quiet presentation.

The Nathansons have done so much research on illegal drivers on the loose and had presented it persuasively to so many federal and state officials, that the 1980 DOT report to Congress singled out the couple in the first lines of the document: "Primarily through the efforts of Mr. Kenneth Nathanson, president of Citizens for Better Driver Records, a citizen organization which specializes in the study of driver records and record systems, proposed changes to the legislation under which the National Driver Register currently operates were introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. James Oberstar in July 1977 as the National Driver Register Act."

Despite the bipartisan support in Congress -- including Rep. John Rhodes (R.-Ariz.), who sponsored the NDR in 1960 - and such groups as the National Safety Council and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis announced the end of the program in June 1981.

Shortly after, the Nathansons went to Peck. They found him uninformed, but he was open to being educated. Between August and October 1981, Peck was to meet regularly with the Nathansons, including several three-hour sessions.

"I think the first time I heard their name," Peck recalled in an interview in his office, "was when one of the guys in the NDR said, 'You better prepare yourself, the Nathansons are going to be coming in to see you.' They asked for an appointment. But they were fobbed off to Ed Pinto [a Peck assistant]. They convinced Ed. So Ed sat down with them and said, 'These are the kind of issues he [Peck] is likely to buy.' He coached them. Well, you can't coach the Nathansons. They're almost a force of nature. But whatever Ed had told them was the best way to approach me, what I got in that first meeting I had with them was much like everything I have gotten since -- undiluted [information], unaffected by any considerations of cunning."

Peck recalled that the Nathansons presented him with a list of questions. Unsure of the answers, he went to people in the agency to get them. He wasn't impressed by the quality of the replies. Peck called them" fishy answers." Persuaded by the case the Nathansons were making for reviving the register, Peck said the "day the Nathansons came in I called Drew on the hot line and said, 'Listen, there's something called the National Driver Register and we may have made a mistake. If you hear from Congress [about it] just file it away for future reference and I'll get back to you. But we've got problems."

Peck would talk again with Lewis soon after. "I went up and told him about [the NDR] and he said, 'Fine, we're wrong. Do what we have to do to get it right.'"

Although the legislation has been passed and the president is expected to sign it soon, things are still not right. Since 1975, according to Ken Nathanson, the number of people on the highways with invalid licenses has doubled to 20 million. "That's a sizable number," says Nathanson, who with his wife seems prepared to keep on making a sizable effort to reduce the number to zero.