In 1982 alone, car crashes claimed 43,600 lives and caused hundreds of thousands of serious injuries. Yet for over 14 years, auto safety regulations that could have saved many of those lives and might still save many more have been mired in agency and court delays. Why this deathly regulatory caution?

In 1977, the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a regulation requiring, with several years of lead time, that new cars have either air bags, which inflate explosively to cushion a crash, or automatic seat belts, attached to the doors so that the passenger slips under them to sit down. These so-called passive restraints protect without any effort by passengers--who just won't fasten their seat belts no matter how many public service advertisements they see and hear. NHTSA thought the rule would prevent 12,000 deaths and more than 100,000 serious injuries per year. In 1981, however, new Reagan appointees rescinded the regulation before it could take effect, citing manufacturers' plans to use automatic seat belts in 99 percent of their fleets rather than the 40 percent predicted earlier, and Detroit's choice of a design for a belt that can be detached from the door and thereby made useless until reattached. Asserting that this would drastically reduce the safety benefits of the $1 billion regulation, and remembering consumer revolt over the ill-fated ignition interlock of the mid-1970s, they pulled the plug.

The Supreme Court overturned the recision this past June because NHTSA had all but ignored obvious regulatory alternatives to total recision, such as forbidding the use of detachable seat belts or mandating air bags where feasible. Moreover, NHTSA offered almost no new information or argument to counter the weight of years of government and private sector analyses. An election doesn't give appointees carte blanche to rewrite the rulebooks and dismiss 14 years of work. The law prohibits "arbitrary and capricious" agency regulation, to combat zealotry of any persuasion.

Meanwhile, the new transportation secretary, Elizabeth Dole, is much more inclined to emphasize safety and act promptly. It should not, however, take a year to restudy the problem, as administration officials suggested in recent Senate testimony. Uncertainties are often a tempting excuse for interminable rethinking, but this problem has been studied to death, despite the deaths. The auto makers may insist on two or three years to put fully into effect a revised regulation. However, partial measures can be taken before then--for example, requiring that automatic seat belts be offered as options on some models. Mrs. Dole should demonstrate that the department can be as purposeful and aggressive in promulgating safety regulations as it was in undermining them. She should announce a tight timetable for settlng this issue, and marshal her troops accordingly.