Automatic teller machines are truly a step forward for the human race. No more hustling to get to the bank by 3 p.m. No more waiting for a teller who's made of molasses. No more borrowing from friends or neighbors on Sunday morning because you blew every cent you had on Saturday night. You can get as much as you need when you need it. Progress with a capital P.

But sometimes . . . .

There was Lars Hoel of Arlington, shoving his access card into a money machine at 19th and M streets NW one Friday afternoon. As it happens, this is a MOST machine that's not attached to the front of a bank, as money machines usually are. This one is just mounted into a wall, all by its lonesome.

In mid-transaction, a woman walked up to Lars and asked if he knew where the nearest branch of American Security Bank was. Apparently she thought that where there's a MOST machine, there's a bank. But not at 19th and M.

Lars said he didn't know where the nearest branch was. But being a helpful soul, he left his access card in the machine and accompanied the woman to a phone booth on the corner, where he looked up ASB in the phone book. Lars found a listing for a branch at 21st and L Streets, the woman said thanks and away she went.

But when Lars came back to the MOST machine, he discovered that his access card had been eaten.

Lars called his bank -- First Maryland Savings & Loan. They said he would have to apply for a replacement card -- a process that takes about two weeks.

And how was Lars supposed to get cash out of his account in the meantime? Well, he could have gone to the Rockville branch of First Maryland the next day and signed a draft. But for the rest of that Friday, he was high, dry and broke.

Here's how Roger Conner, vice president of corporate communications for ASB, explained the snatched card:

"A machine will capture a card if a period of 30 to 45 seconds has passed and no transaction has been performed. This is for security reasons . . . . If a card is already in the machine and the machine has been accessed, if a person leaves, someone else can come up and get into that account. So the machine captures the card."

Conner advised anyone who is interrupted during a transaction to hit the button marked CANCEL. The machine will cheerfully return your card -- and you won't find yourself without cash, or any way to get any, late on a Friday afternoon.

Fair enough. But shouldn't automatic teller consortiums provide a way for the Lars Hoels of this world to get unstuck?

Why not a central emergency number that Lars could have called? Once he explains his predicament, an operator asks him to punch out his access code over the push buttons in a phone.

If he's a thief, he's immediately exposed as such. If he's really who he says he is, arrangements can be made for him to go to a nearby bank and get the money he wants. Simple, safe -- and overdue.