A community group in Montgomery County is raising money to buy toddler car seats to help needy families comply with a new seat requirement passed by the Maryland legislature this year.

Beginning Jan. 1, Maryland motorists will be required to use federally approved child-restraint seats for children younger than 3 years of age. Children age 3 to 5 will have to be restrained by a seat belt or in a car seat.

Montgomery County-KISS, which stands for Kids in Safety Seats, is a coalition of four groups, including women's clubs, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital and the County Health Department. The group has developed a rental and loaner program of 546 infant car seats that has served more than 600 county families over the past year.

Infant seats sell for $35 to $40 and can be rented for $13 for nine months (or until the baby exceeds 20 pounds). If a person presents a Medicaid card, a seat can be obtained for a $5 returnable deposit.

Mary Allman, a supervisor of the Child Protective Service for the County Department of Social Services, rented an infant seat from KISS last year for a visit from her sister-in-law and her 4-month-old child. Her sister-in-law was in a three-car collision in Allman's car on Connecticut Avenue Oct. 25.

"The baby did not sustain any injury at all, whereas my sister-in-law got a severe whiplash and my car was totaled," Allman said. "I truly believe that my niece would have been seriously injured without the seat ."

KISS is extending the loaner program to include toddler car seats and is raising funds to establish a loaner bank of 500 seats, which would cost $20,000. Sue Frey, director of Shady Grove hospital's department of community health, said the group has raised $1,900 in the month since the drive began.

The County Health Department estimates more than 2,000 children of low-income families will need car seats to comply with the new law.

According to the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 900 children under the age of 5 were killed as passengers of cars involved in accidents last year.

"These are not big highway accidents: These are suburban crashes at 30 miles per hour on a weekday," Frye said.

Local organizations are supporting Montgomery County-KISS' toddler seat fund-raiser. The Government Employees Insurance Co. donated one seat, as did state Sen. S. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery) and a group called Dealers Against Drunk Driving (DADD), made up of 150 area auto dealers.

"DADD is also working with area loaner programs to discover which seat models will correspond with car models. This knowledge will enable dealers to act as child restraint advisers to consumers," said Gerard N. Murphy, executive vice president of the Automotive Trade Association, National Capital Area, the group backing DADD.

KISS, in conjunction with the trade association, began training local car dealers last week about different car seats and the local laws regarding them. An instructional program was held last Thursday at Courtesy AMC in Rockville.

McDonald's employes at Gaithersburg Square are raising money for Montgomery County-KISS through a car wash, and Kensington Fire Department No. 25 is organizing a raffle to raise funds for the group.

Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) has introduced legislation in Congress to give incentive grants to states mandating child restraint usage. Currently, about 36 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and the District have enacted laws requiring use of car seats.

In 1981, GEICO set up an infant-seat loaner program for its employes, allowing them to borrow seats for up to nine months.

To rent or borrow a car seat from Montgomery County-KISS, a person must make arrangements to pick up the seat at a specified time.