Automobiles kill. Automobiles pollute the air. Automobiles are major consumer commodities. Automobiles travel across state lines. Automobiles thus are reasonable targets for regulators seeking to limit the damage a car can do to the lives of citizens.

In the span of two weeks -- from late May to mid-June -- the Federal Register offered a sampling of the wide range of government rulemaking that will affect automobiles sold and operated in this country.

After Sept. 1 1981, the speedometers in new passenger cars will not indicate speeds over 85 miles per hour, even though many models will be able to go faster. The rule cutting out display of highest speeds was approved earlier this month as a safety measure by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to the June 16 Federal Register (page 40585).

The purpose of the proposal, according to an agency official, is to discourage at least those speeders who do it for the thrill of hitting 90 or 100, and have a chance of ending up in a fatal accident.

The agency at one time had in mind taking a real step to cut down on speeders by requiring governors on engines that would prevent cars from being driven too fast. "Thousands were against that," an agency official said recently and then confessed he was too. "There are times when I want to be able to drive fast to get away from someone."

There will, however be a double standard in speedmeters -- and safety is again the reason.

Cars, trucks and vans sold to law enforcement agencies will have speedometers that record higher speeds. "A speedometer that does not register over 85 mph," the agency said, "could be a hazard for the drivers of these vehicles."

When you buy a used car, has the thought passed through your mind that the mileage has been turned back? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, concerned about fraud rather than safety, plans to ease your worry.

Again, as of Sept. 1, 1981, odometers in news cars -- the device in your dashboard that records mileage -- will have to be tamper-proof. In other words, the numbers you see that run from 0 to 99,999 -- either miles or kilometers -- will not be able to be turned back or pushed so far forward that they go around again for a second time.

Sometime in October, according to the Federal Register of May 30 (page 36984), NHTSA plans to introduce for study a proposed rule that would "require manufacturers of passenger cars to design the front ends . . . so that pedestrians would suffer fewer injuries if they were hit.

According to the agency there are nearly 130,000 car accidents involving pedestrians each year that result in injuries and "approximately" 8,000 deaths.

The results of some already completed research, the agency said, show severe pedestrian injuries, particularly to the lower body, "can be reduced when the front ends of vehicles are designed so that they use more energy-absorbing materials, such as rubber or plastic." One specific target reportedly will be hood ornaments, which some officials believe are particularly dangerous.

For more information contact Samuel Daniel, Safety Standards Engineer, NHTSA, 400 7th St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590; or call (202) 426-2264.

In doing its tests, NHTSA uses dummies which themselves, are the subject of rules. The June 16 Federal Register (page 40595) records a final rule allowing use of a chemical foaming agent, "OBSH/TBPP," for molding the flesh parts of these test dummies. The rule also made technical changes in measuring the "neck-bending characteristics" in the "50th percentile male dummy."

The reason for the change in chemical foaming agent was that the older substance, called Nitrosan, was no longer being produced. It was found to have "harzardous propensities" toward workers involved in the manufacturing process.

The concerns of NHTSA range from front bumpers to taillights. And it is at the latter point that the agency and the Ford Motor Co. are now in an apparent conflict.

At issues is the yellow color of the signal lamp lenses of almost 2,000 Ford 1980 Granadas. The agency color standard was established by a 1977 rule and the offending Ford cars have a slightly brighter yellow than permitted because, according to the company, the lens supplier made a mistake.

The difference between the allowable yellow and the brighter version on the Granadas cannot be detected by the naked eye, according to the company, "except in direct side-by-side comparison." As a result, Ford wants the notice of "apparent noncompliance" set aside as being "inconsequential."

The agency is seeking public comment on the matter before making a decision.

To comment, write the Docket Section, NHTSA, Room 5108.

Some of the regulatory activity during the period involved the driving of vehicles and safety of the roads.

For example, the Federal Highway Administration is seeking public comment on whether handicapped drivers -- those who have lost or have an impairment of a foot, leg, arm or hand -- should continue to be barred from being able to drive buses or trucks carrying hazardous materials.

The federal rule disqualifying them was first put into effect in 1940, and although challenged in 1949 and again in 1964, it remains on the books.

In its notice in the June 16 Federal Register (page 39872), the agency cites several studies that show the handicapped tend to have more driving accidents than the nonhandicapped. Also pointed out is the sharp increase in accidents involving buses and trucks carrying hazardous materials, without handicapped drivers.

The current review of the rule has been prompted by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based solely on a handicap.