Consumers wasted $7.5 billion on "inadequate, incompetent, unnecessary or fraudulent auto repairs and maintenance" last year alone, according to the federal government's top auto safety expert, Joan Clybrook.

And another $2 billion went for problems caused by vehicle design effects. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told a Senate consumer subcommittee yesterday -meaning that almost 40 cents out of every dollar spent on car repairs was wasted.

"That's about $150 per car per year," she said in an interview afterward.

"Taking a car to the repair garage has surpassed going to the dentist in the level of fear it strikes in the hearts of most citizens," Claybrook told the Senate Connerce subcommittee that evaluates NHTSA's budget requests.

In the interview, she broke down the waste figures into the following categories:

$3 billion spent on unneeded parts in "package deals," such as selling a ccar owner a tune-up where there is only one bad spark plug.

$2 billion on unneeded repairs knowingly and fraudulently sold.

$1.5 billion on "overrepair" due to inadequate diagnosis of the problem.

$3 billion for incompetent repairs for which owners did not tyr or did not succeed in getting their money back.

$2 billion for accidents due to undermaintenance.

$2 billion on cars prematurely retired due to inadequate maintenance.

$2 billion on problems caused by vehicle design defects.

She said the figures came from a four-month in-house study that compiled the results of severtal earlier studies, including a two year project in four states and District of Columbia that checked 126,000 cars both before and after they went in for repaiers.

In an interview after the hearings, subcommittee chairman Wendall Ford (D-Ky.) called Claybrook's numbers "staggering." He said his committee is looking into amending the National Vehicle Safety Act to give Claybrool more leewy, and "possibly giving her some extra money, maybe."