Richard Cohen's column {"Air Bags: For Drivers Only," op-ed, July 10} is inaccurate and unfair, both in its stated "facts" and its implications. Until recently, there weren't enough uppliers or the technology to support passenger-side air bags.

Contrary to what Cohen states, most cars are normally occupied by a driver only; thus there are approximately 2 1/2 to three times as many injuries and fatalities to drivers as there are to passengers in the front right seat. Accordingly, putting an air bag on the driver's side had quantifiable safety benefits, a fact that has been upheld in a court challenge on this issue.

Cohen also overstates the benefits of air bags when he says they can save half of all auto fatalities. That is only the case if the person is also wearing his or her safety belt. Air bags are designed to supplement safety belts, not to replace them. Safety belts are effective in all types of crashes; air bags offer protection only in frontal collisions. And the Department of Transportation did not leave passengers unprotected, as Cohen implies. It also required that manual safety belts be tested and meet the same performance requirements as automatic safety belts and air bags.

With regard to Cohen's point that driver's-side air bags is a sexist policy: wrong again. In today's market, 46 percent of new car buyers are women. Women are also more safety conscious than men, wear safety belts more often (52 percent female usage vs. 40 percent male) and represent only about 30 percent of all motor-vehicle fatalities. Given the facts, it seems that it is Cohen's article -- not driver's-side air bags -- that is sexist.

When Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole issued the passive restraint rule in 1984, she gave a big boost to air-bag technology by giving the manufacturers extra credit for offering a driver's-side air bag. Without that encouragement, automakers might have elected to equip their cars with passive belts instead of air bags -- both were allowed by the rule. The Department of Transportation made a calculated decision to nurture a fledgling technology. The department was not choosing between driver's-side air bags and passenger-side bags. It was choosing between having air bags at all or having nothing.

Cohen can rest easy. Supplemental air bags are achieving public acceptability. And automakers have plans to provide driver- and passenger-side air bags as standard equipment by the mid-'90s. All this would not have happened had the Department of Transportation not proceeded gradually, starting with the driver first.

-- Diane Steed

The writer was administrator of the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1983 to 1989.