Auto manufacturers already are moving to equip most passengers cars and some other vehicles with safety air bags, but several members of Congress think the process is too slow and have introduced a bill to speed things up. The measure would require front seat air bags on all new passenger cars by 1995.

At one time, that would have raised a howl of protest from Detroit since the devices would add $200 to the price of a car. But many companies saw the handwriting on the wall earlier and are moving toward some of the requirements and deadlines in the bill. The only real issue is the pace of progress.Congressional sponsors say the added cost is a small price to pay for the thousands of lives that could be saved. That is a hard argument to refute. Unlike seat belts, which depend on motorists buckling themselves in, the air bags work in a crash without any action on the part of motorists.

Under the bill, front seat air bags would be required on all new passenger cars - on both the driver and passenger sides - no later than 1995. Bags would be necessary on all new minivans, light trucks and utility vehicles by 1997. At the moment, air bags normally are installed only in larger, luxury cars. Installing bags in smaller autos is more difficult.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already is drafting rules for air bags in minivans and trucks, but some members of Congress say the federal rule-making process takes too long. New legislation would be quicker.

Detroit would prefer expanding air bag use by rule-making because the industry usually has greater influence on regulatory agencies than on Congress. Current law for 1990 models requires either air bags or motorized, automatic seat belts. An exception allows manual seat belts on the passenger side because passenger-side air bags are still being designed.

Since automakers already are started on the path to air bags in all models, pushing them a little harder with early deadlines is not unreasonable, especially considering the lives to be saved.