THREE YEARS ago Congress, in an energy conservation bill, approved the practice of permitting motor vehicles to make right turns on red lights. The idea was that that would save fuel consumed by cars waiting for the light to change. Since then every state and Puerto Rico have adopted right-turn-on-red-light laws. But the District had not. Officials of the city Department of Transportation have delayed puting the federal policy into practice because they want to limit right turns on red lights to just a few intersections. Federal officials, on the other hand, want the policy applied broadly. There is some money at stake. The District could lost about $340,000 in federal energy-conservation funds if it doesn't comply with the the federal policy by July 1. But the more important consideration is whether the District's policy should follow that of the rest of the country. We think it should.

The federal policy allows right turns on red lights unless a sign prohibits them. District transportation officials want to reverse that policy in Washington, prohibiting right turns on red lights unless a sign allows them. They contend that the federal standard would be impractical and hazardous if applied here because of the city's numerous diagonal streets, traffic circles, and narrow, tree-lined residential streets, which skew the flow of traffic. According to a city Transportation Department survey, the law could be applied to only 13 percent of the city's 1,400 intersections that have traffic lights. City officials say that adopting the federal standard would entail placing 9,500 signs at intersections prohibiting right turns on red lights. They argue that if their more restrictive policy were adopted, only about 1,000 signs (allowing right turns on red lights) would be needed. Federal officials are skeptical of the department's survey, suspecting it was weighted to support the city's position.

In our view, there is compelling reason why the District should adopt the federal policy: Not only will drivers from Maryland and Virginia be used to the federal standard, so also will the overwhelming number of tourists who visit Washington. (Only two of the states use the restrictive policy District officials are seeking.) The District's conforming to the federal policy would prevent confusion and probably a sizable number of traffic accidents. Also, the law would help ease traffic congestion and help drivers get around the city more quickly. Undoubtedly, there should be intersections - downtown, for instance, and near schools - where right turns on red lights are forbidden. The federal guidelines permit these and other modifications of the rule. Such intersections, we suspect, can be identified rather easily. District officials should stop dragging their heels and adopt the federal standard.