When he was a college student home in Ohio one Christmas, Robert Urich watched as his 8-year-old cousin Michael died from injuries he suffered when a truck hit him.

It was Christmas Eve, he said, and Urich was home from Florida State University.

Now Urich is a father and his son Ryan, 11, like most American boys, is already dreaming about his first car.

So when the producers of the Second Annual Valvoline Driving Test asked if he'd be interested in hosting the special (Tuesday at 10 on CBS), Urich agreed. They sent him a tape of the first one, which aired -- as this one does -- just before the Labor Day weekend.

Urich signed on to be in-studio host, but he's got a raft of celebrities to help illustrate driving problems. Among them are race driver Al Unser Jr. and two actor/racer drivers, Paul Newman and Perry King.

The others are Lyle Alzado, Candace Cameron, Fred Dryer, Danny Glover, Tracey Gold, Mel Harris, Rue McClanahan, Barbara Mandrell, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Connie Sellecca, Ted Shackelford, William Shatner and Marsha Warfield.

Together, they give viewers 25 situations in which they must make judgments. Viewers can keep score and grade themselves or use test sheets available at Valvoline dealers.

Many highway accidents can be blamed on the driver's alcohol consumption. Urich said that he's fairly certain that the hit-and-run driver who recently sheared off four of his ornamental pear trees at ground level and destroyed a brick wall must have been drinking. The car, by deduction a white BMW, also left behind its bumper and tail lights, he said.

Urich says he's had only one small fender-bender during his driving career, and that was more than two decades ago. But he lived in traffic-terrible Boston while making his ABC series "Spenser: For Hire," and he grew increasingly annoyed over inconsiderate drivers there and elsewhere.

"Personally, this driving thing is a pet peeve of mine," he said. "We {he and wife Heather Menzies and their two children} live on a residential street, and people fly up and down the street and they blare their horn at you because you want to pull out of your own driveway."

After years of playing TV sleuths (NBC's "Gavilan," ABC's "Spenser" and "Vega$" -- he drove a red Thunderbird) and special agents (Vietnam veteran/police officer Jim Street in ABC's "S.W.A.T."), Urich switches this season to a different sort of series on NBC called "American Dreamer."

Urich plays a former big-time television journalist who loses his wife while they are working on a story in Lebanon, grows tired of the rat-race and goes back to a small town in Wisconsin. He arranges to write a column for a Chicago newspaper.

"In preparation for this, I actually gave myself the task of writing a column, in a notebook," said Urich. "What they end up being is personal essays, observations on the human condition and little things close to my life."

Comedian Carol Kane will co-star as the columnist's secretary.

Urich, whose first venture into television was on a short-lived ABC series called "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" in 1973 (he was Bob, married to Carol, played by Anne Archer), also has appeared in a string of TV movies and miniseries including "Amerika," "Mistral's Daughter," "Lonesome Dove" and "Blind Faith."

"I'm tired of people referring to television as something on the way to something else," said Urich. "The complexion of moviemaking now is the blockbuster, so some of the better work is being done for television. I think I'm the man at the right place at the right time.

"And," he said, "this one's going to come from the heart."

From the heart means from a guy who grew up in a small Ohio town, Toronto (pop. 6,900), on the banks of the Ohio River at the eastern end of the state.

"It's a great little town, a good town to grow up in," he said. "In fact, when we were planning 'American Dreamer,' one of the images we wanted was the slamming of a screen door: Freedom -- a kid can go outside. Safety -- nobody locks the door."

The series, which geared up earlier this month, is taped in front of an audience on a Paramount soundstage.

"I've got Michael J. Fox's old dressing room," laughed Urich. "It's small, but maybe it'll bring me good luck."