It is Saturday morning all across America -- cartoon time for a trillion or so kids. At the moment, they are watching the Mr. T show, which is sort of a cartoon of a cartoon, but never mind. There's the famous Mr. T in his equally famous van and -- hold it a second, kids -- what's that across his chest? It's a sash. It's a bandoleer. No, it's a seat belt!

Yes, a seat belt. And right ahead of Mr. T's van (or maybe it's behind; I'm not really paying attention) is the car of the bad guys. They are mean looking with appropriately mean, unshaven faces. They snarl. They growl. But lo! What is that across their snarly and growly chests. Yes! Once again, it's a seat belt.

Oh, golly gee kids, do you get the lesson? Do you understand what, almost subliminally and very cleverly, you are being told? Buckle up. At least that's what it seems at first blush. And a good lesson it is too. It could save your life and protect your face from going through the mean windshield. But wait, kids. Maybe you're being told something else as well. Maybe you are also being told that, perish the thought, if you go through the mean windshield, it is, as we adults say, you're own damned fault. You should have buckled up.

What do you mean by that, you ask? What's so bad about teaching kids to buckle up? The answer, of course, is nothing. It is the smart thing to do. But we all know that no matter how clever the message, there are many kids and many adults who will not buckle up. They will go flying through the mean windshield.

But if their cars had air bags they would not. Air bags would cushion them from hitting the dashboard. Air bags would work in those accidents over 35 mph where seat belts sometimes do not -- where, in fact, seat belts seem to cause injuries of their own, such as snapped spinal cords. But the auto companies by and large oppose installing air bags. They could add $200 or more to the price of the car, although Ford charges $815 for them now. If, though, you are rich enough to afford a Mercedes, you get an air bag as standard equipment. One of the reasons the rich get richer is that they survive.

The federal government has seen to that. Under a compromise announced by Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole, auto manufacturers will not be required to install air bags if, by 1990, two-thirds of the U.S. population is covered by mandatory seat-belt laws. One by one, the states have compliantly fallen into line. Just this month Maryland signed up for the Liddy Dole Good Schnook Award, passing a mandatory seat-belt law just as Dole and the auto industry want.

Dole's compromise has put the states in a real quandary. Seat belts sometimes save lives; in a head-on collision, air bags almost always do. By choosing the former, the states all but rule out the latter. But worse than that, the Dole rule revives the pernicious notion that we are always the captain of our ship. This was the advertising dogma of the auto industry in its irresponsible pre-Nader era: Safe driving was your responsibility and any accident was either your -- or the other guy's -- fault. No mention was made of poorly made cars, bad tires, roads designed by the mayor's nephew or the fact, uncontested since time immemorial, that accidents will happen. People will be careless or drunk or silly or, when it comes to men, distracted by some young thing walking on the side of the road.

Now we are creeping back to that era. Of course people are responsible for their own welfare, but so, too, are auto manufacturers and a government that (barely) regulates the industry. Seat belts are now being touted as some sort of panacea against injury. They are no such thing. General Motors offers $10,000 to the heirs of anyone killed while wearing a seat belt in one of their cars, suggesting that such a possibility is remote. But by the first of this year, GM had paid out $2.4 million to the heirs of 240 former GM owners or passengers.

So now it's Saturday morning again. The kids are watching cartoon shows on television, and there's tough Mr. T wearing his seat belt. An adult watching has to smile. He or she knows that in real life neither Mr. T nor the bad guys nor lots of other peo- ple would ever wear a belt. The cartoon is like the Dole rule itself. It's a joke.