PRESIDENT CARTER'S support for federal no-fault automobile-insurance legislation ought to provide the impetus needed to get Congress to act this year. The need is clear, and a recent report by the Department of Transportation reinforces the validity of the kind of legislation being pushed by Sen. Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.). In endorsing this particular approach, the President has provided the kind of executive leadership that has been missing in the past.

Presidents Ford and Nixon, both favored the idea of no-fault auto insurance. But they argued that the federal government should keep out because insurance regulation has traditionally been handled by the states -- and handled better. There is, at least in theory, something to that position. But it is practically impossible to get serious consideration of no-fault car insurance, on a state-by-state basis, in the legislatures around the country. That is because so many of those legislatures have a built-in bias on the subject. In such a situation, it seems to us, the federal government can properly take the steps necessary to see that the interests of citizens, as distinct from the interests of legislators, are protected.

The problem in the states rests in the stranglehold that lawyers have on the legislative process. No-fault insurance strikes at the economic base of a part of the legal profession, and there has been all-out opposition to any consideration of it at all in many legislatures. In some of these legislatures lawyers spend part of each year passing laws and part of it handling automobile-accident cases. The refusal of the Virginia General Assembly to examine the subject seriously is an example. Similarly, the recent episode in which the New York legislature shredded Gov. Hugh Carey's proposals underlines the influence that trial lawyers can exert in state capitals to protect their own economic interests.

No-fault auto insurance is an idea whose time has come. Property set up, it can provide a better system for compensating the victims of automobile accidents than now exists, while freeing the courts of a case load that has become almost intolerable. Sen. Magnuson's legislation would not impose a federal insurance program on the states. It would provide the prod that is needed to get the states to act on their own. His bill or one resembling it -- as the President understands -- should be passed.