The House yesterday sent Transportation Department a strong message that it opposes the department's requirements that cars be equipped with air bags starting 1982.

By a 237-to-143 vote, the House adopted an amendment to an $8.9 billion Transportation Department appropriations bill that would prohibit using any of the funds in the bill to implement or enforce any regulation that cars be equipped with occupant restraint systems, other than seat belts.

But Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) said the practical effect of the amendment is "zilch" since the requirments for air bags wouldn't go into effect until 1982 and the bill only affects fiscal year 1979.

The author of the amendment, Rep. E. G. (Bud) Shuster (R-Pa), acknowledged the amendment wouldn't effectively kill the regulations but he said he wanted to "send a message to the bureaucrats downtown that the American people don't want this kind of regulation."

Shuster said he had no other means of bringing the air bag issue to the House floor since a resolution disapproving the air bag regulations died in the House Commerce Committee. The Senate voted against disapproving the regulations, and since disapproval by both houses of Congress is needed there is practically no change of overturning the regulations in Congress this year.

Shuster said air bags are unproven and would amount to between $1 billion and $2 billion a year in added cost to consumers. On 12,000 cars equipped with air bags, the bag did not inflate in 122 of 287 "tow-away crashes," or 42 percent of the time, Shuster said.

Rep. Robert Eckhardt (D-Tex.), said "tow-away crashes could mean only that the car was damaged as a wheel pushed against a fender, for instance. "The time when the air bag is supposed to deploy is when a collision could result in death and there are 9,000 deaths a year in collisions," he said. Eckhardt said only about 20 percent who have seat belts use them. He estimated air bags would cost between $112 and $230 a car. "Isn't it worth it to save 9,000 lives?" he asked.

But Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said car occupants would still have to use seat belts because "air bags don't inflate unless there's a head-on collision. If there's a side-on or rear-end collision they don't inflate." Dingell said it would cost $400 to $600 to replace an air bag if it were activated.

The House also voted, 194 to 186, to prohibit DOT from going into court over the regulations, but by voice vote it approved continuing research and development on air bags and testing of the device in vehicles.

Earlier the House had voted to limit bonuses for Conrail executives and to strike $10 million in funds for construction of the Darien Gap Highway in Panama and Colombia.

The House passed the bill, 347 to 25.