A Virginia legislative committee today narrowly approved a measure to reduce the state's auto inspections from twice to once a year despite strong opposition from service station operators.

The proposal, which also would increase the inspection fee from $4 to $7, has picked up support from Gov. Charles S. Robb, the Virginia State Police and a growing number of lawmakers who charge that the semiannual inspection requirement is an unnecessary nuisance for motorists. Virginia is one of only four states in the country that require motorists to have their cars inspected twice a year.

The plan has sparked powerful opposition from the Virginia Gasoline Retailers Association, whose chief statehouse lobbyist predicted yesterday that there would be more traffic crashes and more deaths on state roads if the bill becomes law.

"I do not want any of these additional traffic crashes resulting in death and personal injuries to involve me or my loved ones," association lobbyist James W. Heizer told the House Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation. "And I'm sure you must feel the same way about your loved ones."

Heizer's group represents most of the 350 service station owners licensed to perform inspections. The stations receive the $4 inspection fee. They currently perform 7.4 million inspections a year, which provide the stations with a $60.4 million annual source of income.

Heizer, a Richmond lobbyist for 28 years, said the station owners were opposing annual inspections in the interest of safety and not to protect their pocketbooks. He said that in a recent survey his members predicted the public would have to spend more money for auto repairs under annual inspections, because many will allow their cars to become more rundown.

Heizer's argument did not, however, impress some members of the Roads Committee, including the bill's sponsor, Robert B. Ball Sr. (D-Henrico County). "I've talked to some of these people the station owners ," Ball said. "They just want two bites at the apple instead of one. If they get two, they can find more faults with your car."

Ball and other proponents, including State Police Capt. Roy M. Terry, who supervises the program, argued that reducing the frequency of inspections would not affect safety. In fact, one study that was cited, performed last year by a Virginia Polytechnic Institute economist for the American Enterprise Institute, concluded there was no connection at all between auto inspections and car safety.

The Roads Committee's 9-to-8 vote to send Ball's bill to the floor is only the first in a series of legislative hurdles for annual inspections. Despite support from Robb, there is considerable debate as to how much to change the fee.

While some legislators were warning today that debate over a fee increase could jeopardize the bill's chances, Heizer was laying the groundwork for an all-out lobbying campaign against the bill. He said he had already sent a "fact sheet" to all 140 members of the General Assembly. He has also urged his members to "use what persuasive powers they have" by calling or writing their local delegates. "I think we've got a hell of a fight going right now," he said.