THE BURDEN of tightening up the automobile pollution standards is beginning to shift from the people who make the cars to the people who drive them. This week Gov. John Dalton signed the law that will require annual emissions inspections -- beginning in January 1982 -- of all cars registered in Northern Virginia. Mandatory inspections will begin the following year in Washington, and probably in Maryland. Cars that flunk the pollution test will have to be fixed to get back on the road -- although in Virginia the legislature has set a $75 limit on the repairs that can be required. It will be an interesting test of public support for air-purity standards in the Washington area.

Clean air is worth having. The questions are, as always in pollution policy, how clean the air needs to be -- and who pays for it. The struggle with the automobile began a decade ago when Congress wrote a set of pollution limits that were, concededly, rather arbitrary. No one knew exactly how the chemistry of pollution worked.

The 1970 law required the automobile companies to reduce tailpipe emissions according to a set schedule. At first there was a lot of moaning from the companies, then an elegant technical solution -- the catalytic converter. The required emissions reduction will be largely completed with the 1981 cars that go on sale next fall. But pollution in the air is not declining as fast as it should. Surveys indicate that a lot of cars' pollution-control equipment needs adjustment, and probably one out of every four catalytic converters needs repair or replacement. That's why Congress passed additional legislation three years ago, pushing the states into imposing inspection and maintenance requirements in areas like metropolitan Washington where pollution is still high.

The past decade's auto legislation has been aimed at three specific types of pollutant. One, carbon monoxide, has turned out to be a limited threat to health. Another type, the hydrocarbons, is demonstrably dangerous but relatively easily controlled. The 1981 cars will produce one-twentieth as much hydrocarbon emissions per mile as the uncontrolled cars of the late 1960s. The third, the nitrogen oxides, remains a matter of scientific controversy. They are difficult to control and the original congressional standard would have effectively prevented any shift to diesel engines and the fuel economy that they promise. Here, Congress decided, wisely, to relax its standard a little and wait for further evidence.

Having the car's exhaust inspected and fixed is a nuisance. Why bother? Because pollution can do more than make our eyes water. Some of the hydrocarbons, and perhaps some of the things to which the nitrogen oxides contribute, are carcinogenic and cause serious respiratory disease. This country is now engaged in the huge task of trying to identify all the carcinogens in the environment and to find ways, one by one, to reduce their prevalence. On the whole, that seems worth a trip once a year to the inspection station.