IN LESS THAN a month, this country - to its sorrow - has had a cram course in the dangers of transporting oil by tanker. Three ships bound for American ports have sunk. Four others have run aground but worked their way free. Explosions have occurred on two. And two more have spilled oil while in port. Still another was denied entry to the Panama Canal because it was leaking. The toll is more than 45 men dead and some 17 million gallons of oil in the water. That is an appalling record and one which should lend an element of urgency to the hearings of maritime safety and pollution now under way on the Hill.

Although the investigation into these 12 accidents is not yet complete, it seems clear that at least some of them could have been avoided. It is no doubt true, as the shipping industry points out, that there will be accidents as along as there are ships. Human beings to make mistakes, no matter how well trained they are to avoid them. And the violence of the sea can be too much for even the best ships and crews. But there are far too many ships on the oceans now that have not been held to strict standards of design, construction, operating and maintenance. They are, in their way, simply accidents waiting to happen. Only by enforcing the relevant standards can the federal government reduce the dangers to the environment being borne by the fleet of 5,000 tankers now moving oil around the world.

The first thing that needs to be done is for the American government to impose, unilaterally, stringent standards on all ships that use Amerian ports. For several years, the government has attempted - with only partial success - to get international agreement on high standards of both safety and pollution control. But sound international agreements are hard to reach, especially when some of the standards that ought to be set are costly to shipowners who dominate the views of the governments that must agree to them. While Secretary of Transportation Coleman is quite right in arguing that the most desirable way of handling these dangers is through international agreements, the record shows the ineffectiveness of that method. It is now time that we asserted our right to act alone where our interests are at stake.

The government could begin, for instance, by making mandatory on ships using our ports the set of anti-pollution standards that the American delegation presented in 1973 to the London conference on prevention of pollution from ships. A watered-down version of those standards was written into the International Convention which was drafted by that conference. But most of the nations (including the United States) that participated in the conference have never ratified the convention. Whatever the reason for this failure to act, it demonstrates the painful slowness of the negotiating route to acceptable standards. Rather than wait, and eventually accept standards less stringent than desirable, the American government ought to put its original proposals into effect - now . While these proposals deal only with a part of the problem, they are a place to begin. And the wreckage - maritime and environmental - of the past month has made the need for action plain.