LAST WEEK in California, Randolph Collier died--a man almost no one in these parts ever heard of, yet one who did more than a little to shape an important part of most Americans' daily lives. Mr. Collier served 38 years in the California Senate, representing, until he was defeated in 1976, an isolated, still mostly rural part of the state--the kind of place where you could sit along the main highway and count on one hand the number of cars that go by in an hour. His achievement, however, can be seen elsewhere: in the giant interchange of the San Diego and Santa Monica Freeways for example, or the five-tier freeway interchange south of downtown Los Angeles.

For Mr. Collier, as much as anyone else, was the father of California's freeway system. Back in 1947, when California was attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year, he sponsored the first major freeway bill, and for years thereafter promoted the construction of hundreds of miles of freeways. California's freeways rather than the turnpikes of the East became the model for the nation's interstate highway system, begun a decade later. The large number of exits and entrances, the ease with which one can change lanes, these all have long since become a part of life taken for granted by most Americans.

For years it has been fashionable to scoff at the freeways--and often with good reason. What is the value of tearing up perfectly good city and suburban neighborhoods--as is so frequently done--just so that motorists and truckers can save a few minutes on their way from one place to another? But the freeway has also liberated the lives of millions of Americans, enabling them to live in spacious, pleasant neighborhoods 40 miles from where they work and to reach weekend and vacation sites 200 miles away in a few hours.

It would certainly be more efficient if people got around almost entirely in mass transit vehicles. But car-mad Americans have voted with their wheels for the freeways. Mr. Collier, like other freeway architects, of course, scoffed at "rabbit transit" and fought hard to keep the huge gas tax funds devoted entirely to highways--a truly bad idea. Still, the freeways themselves stand as an achievement as undeniable and ultimately beyond criticism as the Roman roads. The generation which now finds it a difficult task to keep them in repair should feel at least a little awe for the men who, like Mr. Collier, started from scratch and built them.