The potential for safer auto travel for all Americans. And a rare victory for consumers these days, with the consumer movement nearly dormant. These are two important meanings of the US Supreme Court's recent ruling on air bags. The court held that the Reagan administration was wrong in the way it abolished a plan to force automakers to put air bags or other passive restraints in new cars. Now the administration's Department of Transportation must consider the issue again.
Controversy surrounds the question of whether air bags themselves are the best device to assure safety for driver and passengers in the event of mishap. They don't protect against all types of accidents, and one always wonders how reliable they would be over time.
But, whatever the final judgment, an alternative exists: automatic seat belts. Studies show conventional seat belts are major safety factors - it is just that most people won't use them.
When the government threw out the requirement, it did so in part because the kinds of automatic seat belts carmakers had planned to use could have been easily disconnected by motorists. Thus it implied the requirement was pointless.
That is the wrong approach. Rather the government now should insist that seat belts be developed and installed which work automatically - and which cannot easily be disconnected. There is no reason why an auto industry which, under pressure of government demand, developed effective antipollution equipment cannot also produce effective automatic seat belts.
Yet it is important to realize that even these devices would not be the complete solution to the challenge of automobile safety. Equally important are alertness and highway courtesy by all drivers. So is the confidence that accidents are not an inevitable and forecastable part of the highway scene, and that the motorist is indeed entitled to safe and trouble-free driving.