A group of American University Park residents, whose upper Northwest neighborhood has long been plagued by commuters using its peaceful, tree-shaded streets, is seeking to cordon off the area to through traffic.

For several years, the D. C. Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken various steps to alleviate the problem at some residents' requests, but those actions have proved unpopular and pitted neighbors on one street against those on another.

Each time the DOT successfully dammed the flow of cars on one clogged artery, the drivers spilled over onto the adjoining street, and those residents protested.

The current effort, a search for ways to confine commuter traffic to the major arteries of the area, began after two rancorous Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings earlier this year at which residents of one street were pitted against those of another.

The ANC 3E appointed the study group, composed of representatives who live on streets that bear the brunt of the commuter traffic, to find a solution.

It is researching ways to keep the traffic on Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Western Avenues and River Road, according to committee cochairman Don Vitz.

"We're just trying to see how we can be protected from people making terrific shortcuts through our neighborhood," said Diane Sheahan, a member of ANC 3E.

Transportation department statistics show that approximately 10,000 cars a day are using the neighborhood streets, fully half the 20,000 using Massachusetts Avenue daily.

"Probably everybody who commutes from Maryland lives in a clearly defined residential neighborhood," Vitz said. "What we're trying to do is apply the lessons of neighborhood planning learned in the last 50 years, with cul-de-sacs and twisty streets, to the grid pattern."

"We're not saying people can't commute. We want them to stay on the routes that are best prepared for them. What they're saying is that Wisconsin Avenue is slow, they have the right to come into our neighborhood," he added.

Vitz said the committee will report to the ANC in October.

Residents said if the traffic problem is not solved now, they fear it may be exacerbated by several large construction projects planned for sites on the periphery of American University Park.

The W.C. and A.N. Miller Co. is seeking appproval to build an office building and 175 detached single-family houses on 43 acres west of Massachusetts Avenue near 49th Street. Development around the Friendship Heights Metro Station also is expected to contribute to the traffic problem, residents said.

Not all the neighborhood's traffic troubles are caused by commuters from Maryland. Vitz said the committee has learned that much of the travel through their area is by crosstown drivers.

The committee is studying measures used in other cities to curtail commuter traffic, including barriers across streets, narrowed streets and dividers to funnel traffic away from residential areas, according to officials of the D.C. Department of Transportation who are working with the group. These measures are often as unpopular with residents as with commuters, the officials warned.

"Often, once you get the community at large involved, they don't like this any more than the commuters, because it makes it difficult to circulate through their neighborhood," said Tom Burke, a DOT highway engineer.

Some residents complained that for a long time speeding drivers used 46th Street as a shortcut from Massachusetts Avenue to River Road. The traffic sometimes reached speeds of up to 55 miles an hour, they said, before a series of speed bumps was installed in December 1981.

"It was hell on wheels," said Dan Landa, a resident of Butterworth Place, who lives a few doors from 46th Street. "It was impossible to cross either on foot or by car."

After DOT installed the speed bumps--12 inches high and 12 feet wide--the speed dropped from an average of 37 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour, Vitz said.

Then, however, about half the cars that had used 46th Street jumped over to 47th, 48th and 49th streets, which were not equipped to carry them, Vitz said. This spring, residents of those streets requested that the ANC ask DOT to remove the bumps.

Residents of 46th Street immediately sprang into action, and gathered 400 names on a petition demanding that "until they find some other means of slowing down the traffic, they leave the bumps where they bloody well are," said Landa, who led the petition drive. DOT agreed to leave the speed bumps on 46th Street until after the study group completes its work.

In his daydreams, Vitz said he envisions a traffic control system for the District similar to one adopted in Singapore. Drivers there need a pass to bring their cars into the city. Realistically, he said, the neighborhood streets will probably have to put up with some cars passing through.