Citing a national poll showing that parents underestimate some of the biggest everyday risks to their children, Children's Hospital National Medical Center declared a five-year war yesterday on the leading killer of children: accidents.

Nearly 8,000 children under 15 died in 1986 of unintentional injuries -- not including homicides and suicides, according to figures released by the hospital. An additional 50,000 were permanently disabled.

The "Safe Kids Are No Accident" public education campaign is an effort to reduce that toll.

"The name of the game today in almost everything we do in public health is prevention," said Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the campaign's honorary chairman and a renowned pediatric surgeon, at a news conference at Children's Hospital on Michigan Avenue in Northwest Washington. Underwritten by Children's Hospital, the National Safety Council and Johnson & Johnson, the campaign also has enlisted the support of a coalition of 24 civic and health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Girl Scouts of America and the American Red Cross.

Koop said health-preoccupied Americans tend to "love the glamorous things" -- transplants, artificial hearts and the surgical separation of Siamese twins -- but overlook everyday hazards such as riding in a car without using seat belts or leaving matches around the house.

The challenge of the new campaign, he said, is to get across a less glamorous message: that most of the accidents that kill about 7,800 children a year did not have to happen.

"It's like an airplane pilot taking off," Koop said. "He has a checklist. That's what families have to be taught."

Preventable injuries kill more American children than all childhood diseases combined, and one of every four children is expected to suffer a preventable injury serious enough to require medical attention this year, according to figures released by the campaign.

A national telephone survey commissioned by Children's Hospital showed that parents overestimate the risk to their children from drug overdoses, kidnapings and crime -- and underestimate the risk from traffic accidents, bicycle accidents, fires and burns and drowning.

The leading causes of accidental death in children are passenger fatalities in car accidents (1,520 deaths), pedestrian fatalities in car accidents (1,470), drownings (1,200) and fires and burns (1,170), according to figures released by the campaign.

The poll, conducted last month by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, surveyed 404 parents with children under 15.

Besides unspecified support from Children's Hospital, the project's first-year budget of $1 million includes about $800,000 from Johnson & Johnson and about $200,000 from the National Safety Council, said Herta B. Feely, the campaign's executive director.

The campaign will focus first on educating parents about traffic accidents, drowning, burns, falls, and poisoning and choking.

In the next few months, leaders said, the coalition will compile a public policy agenda of legislative and regulatory proposals that could promote healthy behavior and reduce the danger of accidents.

A landmark report on "Injury in America" by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine that was released two years ago warned that education by itself, without legal requirements and tough enforcement, "has rarely proved to be an adequate preventive approach."

"The tendency to attribute injuries to 'human error' has nourished the hope that they can best be prevented through voluntary behavior change," the report stated. "Yet neither safety-education campaigns nor driver-education programs have been shown by scientific evaluation to justify the faith and large budgets accorded them."

---- ------------------------------------------------------ PERCEIVED RISKS: SURVEY OF PARENTAL ATTITUDES ------------------------------------------------------------

Although children are about 100 times more likely to die in accidents than to be kidnaped by strangers or to die from drug abuse, drugs and kidnaping top list of parental fears. Drugs..............43%

Being Kidnaped.....37% Auto Accidents.....21% Illness, disease...13% Other Accidents....10% Bicycle Accidents...2% Fire, Burns.........2% Drowning............1% -------------------------------------- SOURCE: Peter Hart Research Associates