YOU PROBABLY DON'T need to be told that the current quarrel over clean air and pollution is essentially about driving. Most big cities are far over the health standard that Congress set for two pollutants, ozone and carbon monoxide, the largest source of which is America's favorite internal combustion machine. There is no way to get rapid reductions without curtailing driving.

The reality here is that some cities -- Los Angeles and Houston are the leading examples -- will never be in compliance with this standard. Even Washington, a less extreme case, could not meet the standard quickly without draconian restrictions on driving. The present dispute over compliance doesn't deal with that reality.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to tell the cities and states to come up with new plans to get themselves into compliance by the mid-1990s. A number of environmental organizations are crying foul, objecting that the end of this year was supposed to be the deadline for getting into compliance and sanctions were to have been imposed on the offenders. The EPA retorts that next year there will be sanctions -- the prohibitions of certain kinds of industrial development -- against areas with inadequate plans. The coast of southern California is one. As the EPA tells the story, it is not procrastinating but rather forcing the cities and states to move forward again.

The country has succeeded, over the past 15 years, in greatly reducing many of the pollutants in its air. But ozone and carbon monoxide remain intractable because, while automobiles have been greatly improved, Americans have offset those improvements by driving much more.

Americans like the idea of purer air, but they don't like the idea of restrictions on driving. Since the present standards cannot in any case be reached by some cities, one part of a solution is differential standards -- tighter in cities like Washington, less tight in cities like Los Angeles. And the standards themselves need to be reconsidered. There would be some health benefits in reaching them, but those benefits would not be large. The money and effort might better be devoted to other environmental hazards, like radon in people's houses, with greater effects on public health.

But if Congress decides to reduce driving, there's one good way to do it. There's the gasoline tax. It would also raise some money and, a further public health benefit, it might possibly avert what's beginning to look like a collective nervous breakdown in the budget negotiations.