Jo Marie Riccobono had been out of high school for a year when her life and dreams were shattered on a head-on automobile accident.

"I had no pulse when they took me to the hospital and they all said I wouldn't make it through the night," she said, her voice laboring slowly with the words and punctuated by the sharp sucking noises of her breathing.

"The neurosurgeon said it was a miracle that I lived. I developed pneumonia, meningitis, stress ulcer. I started bleeding internally. I had a fractured skull . . . They even tried a new drug on me - it made my hair fall out."

The details of her travail in the four years since her accident are almost too terrible to recount. From the busy world of high school and young adulthood with its familiar pleasures and frustrations she was plunged into a struggle for survival.

Viewed in another way, however, Jo Marie's story is an odyssey: a triump of the spirit over adversity.

"They said I'd never get out of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] she said, "but I got up. Then they said I'd be in a wheelchair forever but I proved that wrong too. People [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] and love - that's what [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] through. There's so many people who are worse off than I am [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] like to get better and [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] think I've found the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] love."

Jo Marie, who is now [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] driving her 1969 Ford Fairlane on the way to visit her boyfriend when she had the accident.

She blacked out and was in a coma for six weeks. Now she has no memory at all of how the accident happened, although she was habitually a safe driver and was not cited.

"The guy who hit me, he had one scratch over his eye and he was released from the hospital the next day," she said. "That's what I call fate."

The doctors tell her now that the details of the accident are "lockedup" in her mind and that psychotherapy would bring them to light and would dissolve the terror of automobiles that she now has.

"I don't know if I'm going to drive again, "she said. "Right now I have no desire."

She rides as a passenger, however, and said she "can't believe all the things I see, all the crazy people, the chances they take, the hot-headed drivers. If I see something that kind of frightens me, I freeze."

She freezes often. Her experience has caused her to step back and look with dismay on aspects of the car culture that she was once part of.

"I think the things you hear on the radio have a big influence on the way you drive," she said. "It kind of psychs up your mind: 'Here's the cool dude riding a motorcycle, flirting with girls.' Then you kinda get the idea why can't you do it? Or like if there's a song playing on the radio and you're driving, and the song is very fast and hip, you kinda like keep beat with the foot pedal. Or my father, if he plays soft music, it kind of puts him to sleep . . . when you first come out of school it's something new, you get your license and all. Maybe you take unnecessary chances . . ."

Jo Marie had been an attractive and popular girl at Alfred G. Berner High School in Massapequa, N.Y., her home town.

Her yearbook, which she displayed along with other cherished momentos of the past, contained her class picture - a young woman with a serious, high-minded expression, eyebrows arched and thin.

The caption noted her activities: "Beacon managing editor, drama club, volleyball, pep club, ski club, chorus, jr. council . . ."

The yearbook had its share of warm inscriptions from friends. Someone named Wayne had written prophetically, "Success should be measured by what obstacles you have overcome . . ."

Jo Marie had big dreams in high school of becoming an executive secretary in Manhattan, but she had studied a trade - cosmetology - in her last two years as a more practical alternative.

After graduation she got a job as a manicurist and needed a car to go back and forth to work. She spent $1,000 for the light green Ford with its vinyl black top. She said it was "neat, clean, sharp-looking, but not souped up or anything." Just a car.

In that year after graduation Jo Marie became unhappy and began putting on a lot of weight. Her dreams of being a secretary in the city were withering and she didn't like her job.

"I couldn't find myself," she said. "I wasn't sure what I wanted." Then came the incident, the end of the old life and the beginning of a new one.

Jo Marie was in the hospital and then a therapy for six months.

"When I went to therapy I had no coordination," she said. "I had to learn to walk, to eat, like, baby food and gradually I could take it ground up. Now that I have coordination, I can cut it up fine enough where I can just kind of swallow it."

She had to learn to talk all over again too, because at first her words "sounded like mush."

Her hand still shook as she handled a coffee cup in her mother's kitchen during an interview, and one eye was taped shut because of her double vision.

At one point, she said, she almost went blind when her eyes dried up after they were neglected by hospital personnel who "thought I would die."

She improved month by month, aided by the loving help of her large family and her own renewed religious commitment in the Catholic Church.

There were cruel blows, too.

"After I got hurt my boyfriend told me he wanted to go out with other girls and I was in no position to say anything," she said. "I felt like I was all messed up and of course he didn't want me now . . . I had his ring. That's the only reason he kept in touch, and after I gave the ring back I never heard from him." He has since married someone else, she said.

Jo Marie lives on faith now. She believes that her double vision will gradually improve, and has resisted plastic surgery and other operations. Already, she said, the paralyzed side of her is beginning to "thaw out" naturally.

"Now I would like to get well and go into some kind of medical work, physical therapy, somewhere where I can help people," she said. "I want to work with human life. I don't want to work with material things like I did before. Before I was hurt, materialistic things meant a lot, but now I have a different outlook . . ."

Automobile deaths in the U.S. have declined to about 45,000 a year from a 1972 high of 56,000 with the imposition of the 55 miles-an-hour speed limit and various safety, measures. Yet the human, economic and social costs of auto accidents remain almost beyong imagination.

More than 2 million persons have died in auto accidents in the U.S. in this century or more than three times the 652,000 battle deaths the U.S. sustained in all the wars it ever fought.

Four million persons were injured into auto accidents in 1975 alone, and while most of these were minor injuries this figure for only one year is still double the 1,904,000 total of all battle deaths and wounds in all our wars.

In a study prepared for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Barbara Moyer Faigin attempted to put a price tag on the total costs of motor vehicle accidents.

She included costs for medical care, funerals, legal work, and vehicle damage, plus loss estimates of productivity in work, family life and community service.

Her figures are stunning: the total cost of fatalities, injuries and property-damage-only accidents amounted to $37.6 billion in 1975 alone.

Faigin put the average cost of a fatality at $287,175 and of an injury at $3,185. Each of the nearly 22 million property-damage-only accidents in 1975 cost an average of $520, she found.

The vast carnage has been held somewhat in check by federal laws mandating scat belts and other safety measures. Still other measures seem to have been prevented by American values of freedom and privacy.

Last year, for example, the District of Columbia abolished a program aimed at identifying potential drunken drivers through a highly personal questionnaire after objections were raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

In 1975, an unpublished study of Montgomery County school bus drivers found that personality tests could be used to establish a standard profile of safe school bus driver, yet the county didn't implement such testing.

"It's just a no-no," said Francis Kenel, the American Automobile Association's safey expert. "To what degree do you permit an invasion of privacy? . . . People react very negatively to it, and I feel that way, too."

Auto manufacturers have seized upon such issues in their battle against government regulation.

"The automobile represents freedom," said General Motors chairman Thomas A. Murphy in a speech early this year.He warned against "the steady encroachment of the government upon our business" and lashed out against those in the media who said oppose in the car culture because they "prefer apartments to split-levels and boutiques to supermarkets.

Murphy quoted economist Paul McCracken on "the age-old struggle between those who believe that people should be forced to fit into the blue-printed of proper living - the blueprint being decided by government or some other superior group - and the people themselves who within a framework of rules prefer to work out their own destiny."

Yet after all that Murphy admitted that "the automobile today is the product most complained about" and that much of the blame "lies within our own industry."

Ben Kelley of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization, said that views like Murphy's have been dragged out merely to cover up a basic resistence to safety and other improvements.

Kelley said that auto maufacturers set up a "pattern of resistance over 2 1/2 decades" to seat belts. Now, he said, they are resisting air bags.

"GM and Ford say the marketplace will determine whether people want air bags . . . and that the consumer's freedom of choice should be preserved," Kelley said. "That sounds very nice until you begin to think about its you can't buy an airbag in the U.S. today. What kind of freedom of choice is that?"

Kelley quoted federal estimates that if autos had front-seat airbags there would be 9,000 fewer deaths and half a million fewer injuries in auto accidents each year.

A New York State study of auto crashes found that the use of the seat belts cut deaths rates in half. And Insurance Institute reasearch showed that Australian laws requiring car occupants to use available belts resulted in a 21 per cent decrease in fatalities in metropolitan areas and a 10 per cent decrease in nonmetropolitan areas.

Kelley said that most crashes are survivable today without serious injury at speeds between 25 and 30 mph and that the technology is available to push that figure very close to 55 mph.

"All the technology is in place to substantially reduce injury and death," he said. "The question is: will we as a society require those who build these things to do it?"

Kelley said that reducing overall speeds is another way to cut deaths and injuries but that the logical solution of producing cars that can't go over 55 mph . . . is a "taboo subject" in our society.

He said that even a built-in-limit of 70 m.p.h. could reduce crash fatalities by 10 per cent annually.

"We put our kids in cars that go 120 and say. 'Be nice and go 50,' Then when they get killed we say they were wrong. Now what kind of a society does that? It's shameful."

There is no question that smaller cars are more dangerous than big ones.

The Insurance Institute data showed that the chance of severe injury and death increase "especially rapidly" in cars weighing less than 3,000 pounds.

If small cars are worse in accidents, many people believe they may also be more prone to accidents.

"People can't see you, that's a real serious problem," said George Daniels, who own a tiny MG Midget. "I need to paint my antenna orange and put a flag on it. I've had people sidewipe me three or four times changing lanes. I had a guy back into me once - evidently he didn't see it."

Still, Daniels, a Montgomery County resident, is willing to take a chance. His car is comfortable on long trips that he makes as a Pentagon contract negotiator.

"I just can't see myself in a VM," he said, referring to a car higher and more visible than his own.