A movement to cut down on highway accidents and fatalities is spreading across America like wildfire. As a result, motoring today is significantly safer than it was just a few years ago.
Unlike the Ralph Nader-led auto safety crusade of the 1960s, which dwelt largely on the safety of autos themselves and to some had a decidedly anti-corporate tenor, the current campaign is directed toward the people behind the wheel.
Thus, removing drunk drivers from the highways, encouraging use of seat belts and child restraints, and keeping the 55 m.p.h. speed limit are the focal points of activity for hundreds of local organizations that have sprung up in the last few years.
''We are on the march. Those who are sitting back on the sidelines - be they judges, lawmakers, or recalcitrant newspaper editors - had better join the flow or they will be trampled,'' exhorts Lee Landis, a Ford Motor Company retiree who heads the Wayne County, Mich., chapter of Mother's Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
Groups like MADD, which formed around the single issue of drunk driving, are broadening their efforts into other areas of highway safety. For instance, MADD's latest slogan is ''Stop taking a belt, start using a belt.''
The Reagan administration has been actively encouraging the highway safety movement. Last year, President Reagan appointed a special commission to study the issue of drunk driving. He recently announced that he has extended the life of the commission by a year.
While the presidential commission, headed by former Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe, hasn't come up with anything startling, it has helped legitimize the efforts of citizen's groups like MADD. ''It's been very helpful, mainly because of the energy and integrity of Mr. Volpe,'' asserts Fran Nathanson of Citizens for Safe Driving in Washington, D.C.
Efforts to organize individuals to improve highway safety has also received the endorsement of US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole. In a recent speech to participants at a highway safety conference, she said, ''When the President set out to foster a renewal of voluntarism, we couldn't have foretold the magnitude of the public response in areas (like highway safety). You have made a difference.'' She also pledged her department's support of their efforts.
To prove her point, Mrs. Dole quoted a number of statistics: Last year traffic deaths were down over 10 percent despite an il12l,0,39l,10pincrease in the number of drivers; states with tough drunk driving statutes are reporting as much as 30 percent declines in alcohol-related accidents; in the last two months national seat belt usage has risen almost 3 percent, saving some 600 lives.
These grass-roots efforts have touched off a cascade of legislation, primarily at the state and local level. In 1982, 378 pieces of highway safety legislation were introduced in 37 state legislatures. Of these, 38 were enacted. This year, the legislative landslide has grown to 500 bills introduced in 47 states, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Already, 27 states have passed child safety laws requiring young children to ride in safety seats. Mandatory seat belt laws for adults are under consideration in 13 states.
The nation's business community appears to be jumping on the safety bandwagon in unprecedented numbers, too.
''Last year, the private sector donated over $12 million to various traffic safety programs,'' Diane Steed, deputy administrator of NHTSA, estimates.
One such firm is the GEICO Insurance Company in Washington, D.C. Visitors arriving in the parking lot wearing their belts may receive a flower in appreciation. If an employee sees someone after hours who has had too much to drink, the company will reimburse him for the cab fare required to send the person home. GEICO presents employees expecting their first child with a safety seat. They also initiated a ''good driver'' program with the local police force and other local businessmen: The police issue ''tickets'' to conspicuously careful drivers and the businesses reward them with free tickets to events like games and concerts.
Similarly, General Motors has mounted a national media campaign and is instituting a seat belt incentive program which, in one division, increased usage among employees from 30 to 70 percent. Nationwide Insurance Company offers increased auto insurance coverage at no extra cost to customers who pledge to wear their seat belts at all times.
Despite their accomplishments, auto safety activists say they are just beginning.
''There were over 5,000 fewer traffic deaths in 1982 than in 1981,'' says Mr. Volpe. ''Just think. If we could reduce the number of deaths by that amount each year for five years, we would have cut the total number of such deaths in our nation in half, from 50,000 to 25,000 per year.''