A controversial debate over whether to introduce speed limits on West Germany's Autobahns is dividing a country torn between its twin passions for fast cars and verdant forests.

West German drivers long have considered unrestricted speed on the highways a basic birthright. The self-righteous indignation aroused by the notion that people should be compelled to slow down for their own safety is reminiscent of the emotional opposition to gun control in the United States.

"If there is one freedom that people here are really prepared to defend tooth and claw," a recent editorial in the daily Frankfurter Rundschau said, "it is the freedom of being able to hit the gas pedal."

But the national penchant for fast cars is coming under increasing attack as a primary cause behind the spreading destruction of the country's beloved forests.

More than 40 percent of West German forests are said to be dead or dying from acid rain, which many experts here attribute largely to pollution from automobiles.

Last week the Federal Environment Office in West Berlin released a study claiming that a speed limit of 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour would lead to substantial reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions from cars, thus cutting down on acid rain damage to trees.

The study's findings have triggered a stormy political debate over whether the time has finally come for West Germany to join all other European countries in setting speed limits on its unfettered Autobahns.

Until now, West German politicians, fearful of incurring the wrath of prospective voters, have generally shunned the sensitive topic of speed limits. But the growing anxiety over the fate of the forests indicates that an emerging majority may now be prepared to accept speed limits if it would help save the trees.

A recent survey conducted by the Emnid polling institute revealed that 55 percent of German drivers now favor a 62 mph speed limit.

While the opposition Greens and Social Democratic parties have supported the introduction of speed limits, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's center-right ruling coalition has continued to resist pressure from environmental groups as well as from other governments in the European Community.

France, in particular, has stressed that West Germany could make a major contribution to curbing pollution in Europe by introducing speed limits.

But the Kohl government has spurned the French views so far and only discussed the possibility of provisional tests to explore the potential benefits of speed limits.

At a Cabinet meeting last week, Kohl contended that "a breakthrough to a healthier environment cannot be achieved through speed limits."

This week, a new government study showed that half of the country's 10 million acres of trees were dead or dying from pollution. The figure represents a dramatic increase since 1982, when only 8 percent of the forests were said to be suffering.

Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann warned that legislation curbing factory and car exhausts would still take several years to become effective and that further destruction to the forests was probable in the near future.

As of 1989, all new cars in West Germany must be equipped with catalytic converters to burn lead-free gasoline. But environmentalists are stressing the dire need for motorists to curtail speeds now, if only to 80 miles per hour, so that reduced pollution levels might halt the spreading blight on the forests.

Worried that the environmental arguments are gaining more popular support, West Germany's powerful automobile industry has intensified its lobbying efforts against the imposition of speed limits.

The manufacturers argue that the best way to control pollution would be for more people to buy new cars that produce less pollution than older models.

Industry officials claim that German car exports benefit from a reputation for speed and power that is honed, in part, by the fact that Germans at home are permitted to drive as fast as they want.

"Due to the wear and tear that German cars suffer on our Autobahns, they are built with high quality and margins of safety , and this is the main reason they can be sold abroad," said Wolfgang Weger, a spokesman for the car makers' association.

But environmentalist groups advocating speed limits point out that the best foreign customers, such as the United States, have not lost their taste for German cars in spite of rigorous speed limits.

The industry's campaign also insists that speed limits will prove counterproductive. Eberhard von Kuenheim, a BMW executive, has warned that if the speed limits are put into effect, West Germany will turn into "a country of creeping columns of cars or notorious violators of the law."

The car makers have succeeded in convincing some government officials that even if speed limits cut down on the nitrogen oxide that harms trees, traffic jams could cause a greater release of hydrocarbons that are dangerous to humans.

"The policy of the Federal Republic must not be one that makes forests healthy and people dead," said Dieter Schulte, state secretary in Bonn's Transport Ministry.