The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in the case of a District woman who was seriously injured in a car accident and claims she should be able to sue the carmaker for not installing air bags.

The woman's attorney, Arthur H. Bryant, urged the justices to reverse a ruling that said such lawsuits were preempted by federal law, which did not require air bags at the time. But Malcolm E. Wheeler, representing American Honda Motor Co., said Congress could never have intended the "chaos" that would occur if automakers were held to varying safety standards in the 50 states.

The automobile safety dispute and a separate case concerning whether states can apply their own stringent regulations to oceangoing tankers--adopted by Washington state after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill--were before the justices yesterday in a morning of oral arguments testing the reach of federal law into state affairs.

The air-bag case could affect hundreds of personal injury lawsuits pending nationwide that seek to hold automakers financially responsible under state laws for not installing air bags that might have prevented injury or death. The case began in 1992 when Alexis Geier, driving her 1987 Honda Accord on Macarthur Boulevard, lost control and crashed into a tree, sustaining multiple serious injuries. Geier subsequently sued Honda, claiming her car was negligently and defectively designed and that if it had been equipped with a driver's-side air bag, her injuries would not have been so severe.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that allowing a "no air bag" lawsuit would conflict with the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the transportation secretary's policy in 1987 of permitting automakers to install either automatic seat belts or air bags. (Under the Constitution's supremacy clause, federal law can preempt inconsistent state statutes.)

But Bryant told the court yesterday that neither federal law nor transportation policy sought to usurp common-law personal injury claims.

Wheeler countered that Congress intended a set of national regulations that would preempt varying safety standards in the states. He asserted in his written brief that if the D.C. Circuit ruling were reversed it would lead to "massive, repeated" lawsuits against automakers that installed seat belts rather than air bags in the late 1980s.

Among the groups supporting Geier are municipal organizations, trial lawyers and 17 states. Backing Honda are other manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Justice Department.

No consensus among the justices was apparent from their questions yesterday. A ruling in Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. is expected by next summer.

In the dispute over whether states can impose environmental regulations on oil tankers that are stricter than federal requirements, the Justice Department argued that the federal government has the paramount authority to regulate navigation of ships in interstate and international commerce.

Assistant Solicitor General David C. Frederick urged the court to reverse a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding state regulation of vessels' construction, operations and staffing. Backed by "friend of the court" filings by the governments of several foreign countries, he said the lower court decision undermines U.S. reciprocity in international treaties.

Representing Washington state and supported by 20 other states, attorney William B. Collins said Congress did not expressly preeempt state law in this area and that federal and state governments can work together to make waters safer. In his written brief, he referred to the lingering damage from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons of oil and said states have a vital interest in heading off such environmental catastrophes. The cases are United States v. Locke and International Association of Independent Tanker Owners v. Locke.