Can you really force persons to do something against their own inclination? That, according to Raymond Peck, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is what the issue came down to when the final decision was made to scuttle the costly requirement that new cars be equipped with air bags or other passive restraint devices beginning with 1983.
The safety agency's decision has been greeted with outrage by consumer, safety, and insurance groups. Only the auto industry, not surprisingly, has thrown its support behind the Reagan administration on what is in effect the end of a decade-long drive toward a federally mandated automatic safety restraint requirement for new cars. While having some misgivings about the decision as a whole - both automatic seat belts and air bags were scrubbed at this time - we think there is a need to hear out Mr. Peck. This seems to boil down to listening to the car-driving public.
According to the safety administration's own studies, only 11 percent of all drivers use the current manual seat belts. Consumer advocates may look upon such apparent disregard for personal safety with dismay, and yet, if true, it adds up to a massive vote against restraints. No doubt many drivers are indifferent.
Without anyone prejudging the issue at this point, since a legal challenge of the safety agency's decision seems likely, motorists seem to be sending a clear message. If, after all the public-service advertisements in favor of buckling up , the majority of Americans won't heed them, perhaps there is more need to hear why than has been the case in recent years, when the government pressed ahead with a mandated restraint system on the basis of ''this is what's best for you.''
The air bags, for their part, presented as many problems as solutions. Even proponents conceded that they would have been questionably effective against lateral or rear-end collisions. Fortunately, all cars will continue to be equipped with manual restraints.
However, it is disturbing that the general public is resistant to taking simple safety precautions already provided. In the absence of government-mandated measures, surely drivers and passengers ought to cultivate the common-sense attitudes and habits necessary to assure safety on the road.
One trusts that Mr. Peck is correct in saying that carmakers are considering design changes that will make for more safety. If manufacturers are not moving in this direction, they should be prodded into doing so. Abandoning mandated restraints should not mean backing off the effort to improve automotive safety.