AT THE TIME of the passage of the statute protecting foreign officials from liability for unpaid bills, prosecutions for theft and even murder, George Washington was enjoying his second year in office, the French Revolution was breezing along, and the automobile wasn't a glint in anyone's eye, including Ben Franklin's. Now that the Senate has approved a bill that would repeal that statute of 1790 and curtail diplomatic immunity for the majority of foreign embassy officials here, we may at last catch up to modernity - at least in one quarter - and perhaps even cross the streets in relative safety.

Diplomatic immunity has been no laughing matter in this area - except to those embassy officials who have amassed closets full of parking tickets and unpaid grocery bills in their odd demonstrations of international good will. Anyone who has had the special pleasure of being tailgated by a car with that unsettling DPL on the plates, or who has slow-burned in a traffic jam caused by a double-parked embassy butler, will recognise the impetus of the Senate bill. This, of course, is not to mention the over $1 million in lost city revenues from unpaid tickets; the thousands of hours of lost police work; or the most grave and flagrant violations, such as the incident in July 1976 when a former chauffeur for the Embassy of Senegal claimed diplomatic immunity after the hit-and-run killing of a 19-year-old Arlington repairman.

In 1974 there was the case of Dr. Halla Brown, a 62-year-old professor of medicine at George Washington University. The cultural attache of the Panamanian Embassy ran a red light and plowed into Dr. Brown's car, paralyzing her from the neck down for the rest of her life. There were 19 months in the hospital and $250,000 worth of bills. The embassy claimed immunity. The ambassador extended his sympathies.

Victims in similar circumstances would be extended a good deal more than that under the Senate's bill. It would generally make foreign embassy officials and employees, excluding ambassadors, legally responsible for violations commited when acting in non-official capacities - which includes social to and fro, shopping expeditions and the like. It would also require all diplomats, including ambassadors, to carry liability insurance - something required of our own officials overseas. It would allow the injured party to sue the diplomat's insurance company and would require insurance companies to pay victims of diplomats' negligence.

About time.