SOME OF THE QUICKEST routes to instant poverty are the streets of the District of Columbia -- where some 114,000 uninsured motorists regularly threaten pedestrians, passengers and other drivers with serious, uncompensated injury. The District lacks any form of mandatory liability protection -- and four of every 10 registered drivers haven't bothered with it. That is a frightening prospect for any man, woman or child who could be the next uncompensated victim of a crash.For years the city government and congressional committees have fiddled with measures that would require auto insurance, but none has been enacted.

District council member Betty Ann Kane has been a leader in the campaign for changes; and now council Chairman Arrington Dixon, Mrs. Kane and four other council members have renewed the attack with support for a sound, comprehensive no-fault insurance bill that would require coverage of all cars. A victim could collect compensation of up to $124,000 for expenses and lost wages without time-consuming litigation to prove that a mishap was someone's fault. Suits claiming pain or suffering beyond that sum would still be permitted.

Mr. Dixon notes that his bill was drafted with the assistance of the Committee for Consumers No-Fault, a national coalition of consumer groups, business and labor organizations, insurance companies, car rental firms and others seeking uniform minimum protection standards for accident victims. The coalition's efforts to win congressional approval for this protection should continue; but the specific responsibility for enacting no-fault insurance protection remains with the states and District -- and there is no reason to wait.

One need only follow the story of a helpless victim to appreciate the need for no-fault protection and required insurance. In July, for example, Willie Hunt Jr. was struck and severely injured by a car in an Alexandria crosswalk and spent 65 days in the hospital -- at a cost of $11,229.90. He's now discovered that he will have to pay -- somehow -- $3,000 of this bill from his $112-a-week take-home salary. His job insurance covers about $8,000, but because the motorist was an enlisted man at Ft. Belvoir -- and because Virginia doesn't require out-of-state military people to carry insurance while they're stationed in Virginia -- Mr. Hunt is stuck.

Ideally, the entire region should be protected against uninsured drivers, since they do not confine their motoring within state boundaries. In the meantime, the District council should move as quickly as possible to enact its own sound measure.