Suppose you boarded a plane, and only the aisle seats had seat belts? What seat would you take? Suppose, further, you boarded another plane, and only the crew had seat belts? Once again, what would you do? Chances are you would get back off, insisting your life is as valuable as the next guy's. Ah, but where is that insistence when it comes to cars?

With cars, the issue is not seat belts, but air bags. These wonderful gizmos, long delayed by the auto industry, are now in certain cars. Chrysler even features them in its advertising. You might have seen the commercial: Lee Iacocca standing next to someone who survived a crash on account of an air bag. This is the very same Iacocca, incidentally, who once opposed air bags.

But where are these air bags? In Chrysler they are on the driver's side. How about the passenger's? You ask. Sorry, not offered. In fact, with very few exceptions (certain Lincoln models, Porsche, Mercedes and the Subaru Justy) air bags are available -- when they are available at all -- only for the driver. Those of you who sit in the melodramatically named "death seat" (almost 6,000 fatalities in 1988) can either stay home or increase your insurance.

How is it that people accept a situation in cars (by far the most dangerous way to travel) that they would reject in airplanes (the safest way to travel)? Three reasons, I think. The first is that, really, they have no choice. I recently bought an Acura, in part because it had an air bag. I say "in part" because the air bag was hardly the whole story. I also liked the car, did not want a Lincoln or a Subaru Justy, could not afford a Mercedes and lack the requisite gold chains for a Porsche. You could say I compromised, but really I didn't. After all, I got my air bag.

Second, the automobile industry has been so reluctant to adopt air bags that consumers are forgiven for not even thinking of them. The technology has been around for some time and was introduced by Mercedes in 1983, but even today few cars have them. It was only after a woman recently walked away from a head-on collision in Virginia that air bags started to get the attention they deserve -- mostly from Chrysler, the very car from which the woman walked.

Maybe the air bags' best feature is their "passivity." Unlike seat belts, which have to be fastened or can be disengaged by the operator, air bags are just sitting there waiting for an accident to happen. They can save the lives -- half of all auto fatalities, it's estimated -- of precisely the people who are most likely to have to have accidents: macho morons who drive without seat belts and recklessly too.

But the third reason may well be the most important: a kind of sexism. I ask you two questions: Who makes cars, and who buys them? Men, mostly. And now I ask you a third question. Who invariably sits in the front passenger seat? Women and children. This is not to say that women don't drive and that some women don't drive men. It is simply to say that, usually, men drive women and both of them drive children.

It took the auto industry to stand the Titanic rule on its head. On that doomed ship it was women and children first. In the auto industry, it's women and children last. I don't think anyone in the auto industry thought of things in these terms. I don't think they thought at all. The situation is rather like the feminization of poverty. It's not that anyone wanted women to be poorer than men, it's just that no one gave much thought to how certain social and economic policies would affect women. It's the same with air bags. Call this the feminization of death.

Whether I am right in thinking that the auto industry's air bag policy is sexist is beside the point. No matter who is in my passenger seat, he or she lacks the protection I have. The fact remains, too, that almost anyone who buys a car with a single air bag is a very poor host. And the last fact is that the federal government, which for years allowed the auto industry to withhold air bags, has now permitted it to practice a kind of triage: it will save some lives (usually the buyer's) but not all lives. Go buy your own car, lady.

Eventually all cars will have air bags. And eventually they will be placed on the passenger's as well as the driver's side. In the meantime, though, lives that could be saved will be lost. It took the auto industry (and the government) to come up with a specter to compete with that of being killed in an accident: having an air bag save your life but not that of your passenger.