THE MARCH 31 deadline for renewing automobile registrations has a way of creeping up on some of us without warning. Standing in line for hours at the Municipal Center and paying long-ignored fines is an annual ritual for thousands of District auto owners - who promise that next year will be different. Well, this year is different. Officials in the District's Department of Transportation have managed to gum up the works by failing to mail almost 30,000 registration forms. Officials hope that auto owners will get them before the Friday deadline. In light of the usual last-minute crush of registrants, this situation will doubtless lengthen waiting lines and shorten tempers.

There are still ways to get the 1979 stickers before the last minute in March.This week, for example, there will be four locations to handle registration applications - but only those motorists who have no outstanding traffic violations. Stickers can be picked up at the Municipal Center (301 C Street NW), Fort Dupont Park Activity Center (Randle Circle and Fort Dupont Drive SE), the Northeast Inspection Station (1827 West Virginia Avenue NE) and the fringe parking lot at Carter Barron Amphitheater (16th and Kennedy Street NW). But the estimated 25,000 motorists who still have to pay their traffic tickets must go to the Municipal Center and settle their accounts - with cash, certified checks or money orders.

The Municipal Center will open at 8:15 every day this week, and we've got it on good authority that the lines are still fairly short. Those who don't yet have 1979 ddecals on their license plates will have to hurry.