Contrary to statements by the auto industry, government regulation of automobile safety and fuel efficiency actually saves consumers money in the long run, according to the Department of Transportations.

A DOT study entitled "The Burden of Automobile Regulation: Fact or Myth?" places the cost of present federal standards at $250 for a 1978 automobile less than half the cost claimed by auto industry officials in recent statements.

The study further states that coming regulations will make 1984 cars cost an additional $285 but will result in "a net vehicle lifetime savings of more than $600."

Coming in the wake of dozens of recent automobile recalls, and at a time when industry criticism of increased regulation has hit a fever pitch, the study represents the first documented counterattack by the National High-way Traffic Safety Administration, part of DOT.

In recent weeks, statements by leading automakers have contended that regulation is leading to as much as a $1,000 per car 'ripoff' to consumers, retarding scientific progress, contributing to inflation, adversely affecting competition, costing workers jobs and crippling American business in the world marketplace.

"The allegations repeatedly made by executives have been used extensively without challenge," the DOT report states. "It is time to subject them to close scrutiny."

The study says that 47,000 people die annually on the nation's highways, and that the resulting economic loss is estimated at $43 million. These figures, it says, warrant NHTSA's responsibility to improve safety.

The study points out that since 1966, when the first major safety legislation was enacted, the death rate on the highways has dropped 40 percent, from 5.7 to 3.3 deaths per 100 million miles of travel. The net result has been the saving of 200,000 lives - 35,000 last year alone, the study says.

The report uses industry figures to illustrate that "profitability and sales of the industry are largely a function of the state of the economy, with no discernible effects stemming from regulation." The figures show Ford and General Motors enjoying record profits and sales last year.

The average new car consumer spends three to four times the $250 regulation figure for "comfort and convenience options such as air conditioners and vinyl roofs," the study says, discounting arguments that consumers can't afford regulation.

NHTSA also contends that, rather than adversely affecting competition, it is promoting competition by making U.S. cars more fuel-efficient and thus more competitive with foreign imports. Figures show sales of foreign cars decreasing as a percentage of all U.S. sales.