Like every secretary of transportation since the department was formed in 1966, Elizabeth Dole is going to face particular frustrations in overseeing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There are good reasons why. The NHTSA is not a transportation agency; it is a public health agency. It is not like the FAA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Maritime Administration or the Coast Guard. These agencies, working closely with their constituencies, hand out huge subsidies and fund large public works projects.

The mission of NHTSA, however, is to push manufacturers to design safe and fuel- efficient automobiles--a neglected form of business innovation. The agency's grants to state and local highway safety programs provide less than 5 percent of the full costs. There is no spigot of federal money holding NHTSA's diffuse constituency together.

Public health agencies are always controversial. Rather than bolster the status quo--which condones technology-based tragedies--their job is to push for change. The need for health and safety regulation is essential and its payoff extraordinary. Every day, more than 130 Americans die in auto crashes across the nation, and thousands are injured, many permanently. These casualties exceed those of a major airline crash every day, 365 days a year. Would the administration or Congress tolerate such airplane disasters? Not likely.

NHTSA actions already save thousands of lives and injuries a year, a record matched by few other public health programs. Yet if it were properly administered, and if scientific evidence were given a higher priority than the auto industry's insatiable demands, NHTSA could save many thousands more lives.

Unfortunately, Dole has a special challenge because during the past two years most of these life-giving programs have been abandoned or ignored. Perhaps a brief list will highlight the point:

* Since 1968, the vehicle crash safety standards have saved some 80,000 American lives (and countless other lives worldwide). Yet the agency has revoked the proven crash protection standard (air bags or automatic belts) that could prevent about 9,000 crash deaths a year--25 each day.

* The NHTSA has instituted an across- the-board moratorium on significant new safety standards. As a result, there will be no improvements in side impact protection (8,000 deaths in these crashes annually), pedestrian protection (9,000 deaths annually) or steering assemblies (thousands of head, neck, and chest injuries).

* The alternative to vehicle safety standards being touted by the NHTSA is a belt promotion campaign. Similar efforts in the past have failed. The agency's goal for its campaign is 25 percent higher belt use over four years--a wildly optimistic goal yet far less than airbags would achieve in four years.

* The 55 mph speed limit has saved more than 54,000 lives and 28 billion gallons of gas since 1974--no minor achievement. Despite strong public and congressional support, the agency has reduced its grants for state enforcement programs, and cancelled new research and technical assistance.

* Enforcement of the law is a stepchild at NHTSA, whose failure to insist that GM X-body car brakes be properly fixed recently sparked reprimands at a congressional hearing and a GAO investigation. NHTSA cancelled its enforcement public hearing on GM's promise to recall, but now GM is balking again. How long can this go on?

* Last year NHTSA initiated a secret joint research program with U.S. auto manufacturers--hardly appropriate for a regulatory agency. These secret communications are a blatant violation of the U.S. Advisory Committee Act, which requires government advisory panels to work in the public domain.

* Public information has been seriously reduced. The Car Book, requested by 1.5 million consumers in 1980, was discontinued. The latest vehicle crash test data are released too late to be of any use to car buyers. (Data for some 1982 cars were released March 1, 1983!) The labeling standard for tire tread wear was frivolously suspended despite vigorous objections from consumers, agency engineers and the Uniroyal Tire Co.

* Although both General Motors and Ford failed by almost 2 mpg to meet the 1983 fuel economy standards, NHTSA shrugged. "The marketplace provides sufficient incentives," agency officials proclaim after dismissing or dispersing the agency's fuel economy research and rule-making staffs.

* More than 200 NHTSA staff, or a quarter of the work force, have left the agency since 1981. As a result of this "brain drain," NHTSA's ability to carry out its congressional statutes is in jeopardy.

* In fact, the agency has been negligent in carrying out even its most routine statutory obligations. Its 1980 annual report to Congress was submitted 16 months late, and the 1981 report has yet to be submitted. As for the fuel economy report due in January 1983 --who knows when it will materialize?

In short, this important public health agency, which has more than proved its worth, has squandered its reputation and pride. Ignoring the recommendations of its top scientists, the agency has neglected its three most effective programs--safety standards, motorcycle helmet use and the 55 mph speed limit. The promise of voluntary industry compliance with safety goals has been a hoax. The "full court press" on the auto industry to participate in an airbag demonstration program has turned into "another team stall."

NHTSA's constituents are not the titans of the financial and business world, but many ordinary people who must deal day in and day out with the horrible aftermath of auto crashes--police, pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons, insurance carriers, and of course the many victims and their families. Dole should not look upon her public health duties as ones to be avoided but as opportunities to be fulfilled.