ALLOWING CARS to turn right on red lights can be dangerous. That was the finding of a study release this week by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The study found a 25 percent increase in car accidents in cities with right turn on red. Accidents involving cars and people on foot in cities increased by 79 percent after RTOR became law, according to the study. The study's conclusions on the danger of RTOR come to Congress like a truck racing unexpectedly through a red light: Congress did not consider safety to be a major concern when it legislated the RTOR policy in 1975. At that time, the new law was thought to be a gas-saver and a time-saver that would also ease traffic congestion.

News that RTOR also means an increase in accidents, injuries and deaths changes any consideration of its ability to save gas. But the study does not condemn all RTOR legislation as a mistake. What it does say is that safety is a factor -- possibly the primary factor -- to be considered when instituting the law. In other words, RTOR is not for every intersection.And it is not for every area of the nation. For example, while the study found that RTOR increased accidents in rural areas by less than 10 percent.

Paradoxically, Washington, the city that fought Congress over orders to implement the law under the threat of losing some federal aid, may be the lone American city where RTOR works well. The reason is that this city's transportation department, initially opposed to the law, has been reluctant to put RTOR into effect at many intersections. Before June, when added pressure was brought to bear on the transportation department by Congress, RTOR was permitted at only 18 percent of the city's 6,000 intersections. After June, the transportation department allowed RTOR at 65 percent of the city's intersections either 24 hours a day or 12 hours a day. But the emphasis remains on making RTOR an exception on our streets.

When Congress takes a second look at the law -- and it should -- it can begin by trying to analyze the District's situation, where RTOR appears to be working more safely than in any other city in the nation.