IN THE CITY OF Washington, there is a man named Douglas Schneider. He is the transportation director and a more roundly hated man you are not likely to find. He believes in keeping the automobile in its place, forcing people onto public transportation and maintaining the distinction between city streets and freeways. Doug Schneider, as you can see, is a perfectly contemptible man.

Now Schneider is in lots of trouble. When it came time to implement the Right Turn on Red program (RTOR) he all but didn't. He posted signs at something like 80 percent of the city's intersections forbidding the turns. That's the official figure. No person alive has been able to find the other 20 percent.

As a result, Washington has a new trivia game -- guessing where right turn on red is permitted. My wife knows of one spot and someone mentioned one in a letter to the editor and I myself found one the other day, but the truth is that I'm not sure if the sign got twisted and was really supposed to face the other street. turned anyway and found the experience absolutely thrilling. Now I know how the rest of the country lives.

The program, you see, is a national one. It was enacted by Congress in the teeth of the energy crisis and it is designed to save gas. The thinking here is that a car idling at a light wastes gas while one that merely comes to a stop and goes on its way saves gas. In this way, America bites the bullet on the energy crisis.

For years I thought I had Dough Schneider all to myself. His was not a household name -- except maybe in his household. I, however, knew his name and took it very often in vain. I blamed him for traffic lights that didn't work and for the sad shape of the Whitehurst Freeway and for the fact, undisputed and true, that there is a set of traffic lights near the National Zoo that no person can make. Two go green and one goes red. It's a thrill just to see it.

So it is with a certain amount of reluctance that I have to say that maybe Doug Schneider is trying to tell us something with the way he has implemented RTOR. In the first place -- and this is somewhat beside the point -- he has proved that it is not always the cities that push around the rural and suburban area.

But Schneider's main value is in giving the lie to the notion that the way to save gas is to allow cars to make a right turn on red. This might save some gas, but what it really saves is time. The savings of gas, we all know in our gut, is incidental. If by some process a right turn on red would waste gas but still save time we would still make the turn. This is the American way.

The way to save gas, as Schneider well knows, is to make people abandon their cars and take public transportation. Nowhere in the world is this more feasible than big cities, Washington included. This area alone plans to spend something like $7 billion on a subway. I, for one, drive anyway.

I drive because I like it. I drive because it's convenient. I drive because it's fast and I drive because it's warm in the winter and cool in the summer and because the radio plays my music and not the music of some kid with the Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer on his shoulder. And when I drive I like to make a right turn on red. I resent not being able to do it but I know that it would have been a sin to have made it easier for me to drive. In that sense, Doug Schneider has blown the whistle, make us stop and ask, "What in God's name are we doing?"

It's not a bad question. At the moment we are about to go to either war or to insult over oil and at the moment we in the United States consume one-third of all the oil produced in the world. In fact, one out of every nine barrels of oil produced gets burned up on our highways. If you think allowing right turn on red lights is going to change that figure, you believe in the tooth fairy.

In fact, the right turn on red program, much as we all may love it, is just another manifestation of our craziness with the automobile. In the name of this false economy, we will push pedestrians back on the curb, risk some more accidents and make driving even easier -- saving time, no gas. To the extent that Doug Schneider has made us realize this, he has performed a public service.

Now can we have RTOR?