During the last month, Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis has assured the American public that air transportation is safe despite the strike and drastic reduction in the air traffic controller work force. He is concerned, naturally, that a catastrophic airline crash killing 100 or more people might spark a public demand for concessions to get the experienced air traffic controllers back to work.

While his attention is focused on air transportation, which serves about 15 percent of the population, Secretary Lewis is callously ignoring his statutory responsibilities to foster the safety of 90 percent of our citizens for whom the motor vehicle is the basic form of transportation. Each day of each year approximately 140 Americans are killed in highway crashes, the equivalent of a major airline crash. And, in addition, thousands more are injured.

When the death and destruction is catastrophic, politicians get a lot of heat and respond. However, even when the harm is multiplied fiftyfold, but is spread among many communities, families and hospitals, it is not a news event and is not an agenda item for the secretary of transportation. Secretary Lewis made this clear when he told the National Automobile Dealers Association, a month after taking office, that he did not intend to issue any auto safety standards for the next four years. He said this before he could possibly understand the human or economic consequences of his statement, and he blatantly ignored his legal obligation for impartiality.

Four months ago in Utah, two women, aged 53 and 81, in a 1975 Toronado crashed head-on into a tank truck. Despite their ages, they miraculously survived with repairable injuries because the car was equipped with GM-manufactured air bags, which inflated instantly to cushion the devastating impact.

This was not the only time air bags have been put to the test. There have been about 250 air-bag deployment crashes involving more than 350 front- seat occupants from a group of over 10,000 1973-1976 air-bag-equipped cars sold to the public. In every crash, the system has performed magnificently.

For years, this technological vaccine has had the potential to dwarf the Salk polio vaccine. In 1971, the Nixon administration first issued the automatic crash protection standard to ensure that air bags were available to the public. Since then, the auto manufacturers have resisted, maneuvered and cajoled to delay the effective date. Secretary Lewis has already delayed for one year the effective date of the standard that was finally reissued in 1977 to take effect in the early 1980s. Now the manufacturers have demanded repeal, and Secretary Lewis is about to fulfill this expectation.

Rarely has a public health remedy been so likely to save so many lives as this and other improvements in vehicle design. Auto crashes are the largest killer of people under age 34 in the United States, the largest cause of paraplegia and a major cause of epilepsy. On the average, a highway fatality occurs every 10 minutes and an injury every eight seconds. As many Americans are killed on the highway each year as were killed in the entire Vietnam War (about 52,000). Fifty-five percent of the 40,000 occupant deaths occur in frontal crashes, the type of crash where air bags and automatic belts do their job.

In dollars, the cost to the nation has reached over $50 billion annually in medical and rehabilitation costs, lost wages, welfare and property damage, not to speak of the incalculable personal loss. In terms of public health costs, auto crashes are second only to cancer.

Secretary Lewis is aware of these overwhelming casualty figures:

He knows that since 1968 at least 70,000 lives have been saved and countless injuries avoided because of federal vehicle safety standards.

He has seen the reports showing a doubling of the risk of injury in a crash when motorists shift from large to small cars without any attendant safety improvements.

He realizes that air bags, if installed in most cars, would save over 9,000 lives and protect against thousands of injuries each year while costing less than $200 in mass production.

He knows that only 10 percent of the public wears safety belts.

He is aware of his explicit statutory responsibilities to improve motor vehicle safety.

He has seen the 1971, 1978 and 1979 General Motors market surveys showing a heavy demand among GM car buyers for air bags.

He knows that fuel economy savings of over $3,000 per 1985 car (compared with 1977) will more than pay for needed safety improvements, including automatic crash protection.

Despite this evidence, Secretary Lewis apparently intends to abandon the government's automatic crash protection standard. If he does this, he would be reversing the government's public health policy of the past 15 years to enhance vehicle crash-worthiness. For the consumer, it would not end vehicle regulations; it would just return this authority to Detroit executives whose record includes muscle cars, gas guzzlers, the Corvair, Vega, Pinto and too few fuel-efficient cars to compete with the Japanese six to eight years after the oil embargo. Detroit's greatest accomplishment, the development of air bags, has been discarded, and is waiting for some innovative foreign competitor to once again supply the U.S. marketplace.