Cui bono? As the lawyers like to ask: Who benefits?

Now car owners, unschooled in the law, are entitled to ask the same question. Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a former watchdog of an agency turned into a pussycat by the Reagan administration, lowered the standards for automobile bumpers. They now have to sustain a collision at 2 1/2 mph without damage instead of the former 5 mph. The new regulation ought to be called the Fender and Body Shop Relief and Rehabilitation Act of 1982.

This, of course, is not the way it was sold when it was promulgated. Instead, it was described as yet another effort at deregulation--another example of the government getting off the back of industry. By lowering the standard, new cars would become lighter, more economical and, of course, cheaper.

Lighter (2-6 pounds) they have become. Infinitesimally more economical (2/10ths of a gallon per year) they have also become. Cheaper is another matter entirely. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research organization funded by the insurance industry, not a single one of the manufacturers who took advantage of the new lower standards has lowered its price. Instead--surprise, surprise--they have increased them.

But that is not all that has increased. The institute conducted some tests, comparing the 1983 Honda Accord, which lowered its bumper standards, and the 1984 Ford Tempo, which did not. Crashing into a barrier at 5 mph, the Ford suffered no damage. The Honda going the same speed into the same barrier came home with a repair bill of $305. At 5 mph into an angle barrier, the Ford sustained $309 worth of damage; the Honda, $916.

The insurance institute did a lot of crashing. It went at barriers at both 5 and 10 mph, both forward and reverse, straight on and at an angle. Totaling all the damage estimates, it came up with a figure of $931 for the Ford and $3,655 for the Honda. Behold the benefits of deregulation.

The insurance industry knows a bit about regulation, overregulation, strangling regulation and all the rest. But it also knows a bit about the costs of automobile collisions since it pays most of the bills. It thinks the new bumper standard is an outrage since it will cost insurance companies more. And since the insurance industry is not, at last glance, a nonprofit segment of the economy, it will pass those costs on to you and me in the form of higher premiums. All-State, the nation's second-largest auto insurer, has already done so.

No one would argue that there is no such thing as overregulation. Like anything else, it can be overdone and it probably has been, especially when the dominant government ethic was "when in doubt, regulate." But now the ethic seems to be reversed and we have deregulation just for the sake of it. In the case of bumpers, the government has gotten off the backs of industry and onto the backs of consumers. So weak is its argument that the government's own General Services Administration won't buy cars with the new bumpers.

In spirit, the lowered bumper standards are similar to the administration's antagonism toward air bags or other passive restraints. It's not that air bags will not save lives or that passive restraints--automatic belts like the kind in the Volkswagen Rabbit--are not practical. It is, instead, that they are expensive, and to a degree, loathed by the public. They could, though, save 9,000 lives a year. No matter. The administration let the auto industry off the hook until the Supreme Court ordered it to obey the law.

There are cases where the human benefits of regulation are so minimal that reasonable people could argue about the expense. But when it comes to saving lives and reducing or maintaining insurance premiums, that is hardly the case. The benefits to the public are obvious. Less obvious is who benefits from the newer relaxed standards. Maybe it's the auto industry or maybe it's the greater cause of deregulation.

This much is clear though. Cui bono?

Not you, baby.