Until recently, federal regulations required automakers to equip all their cars with passive restraints by 1990 - air bags or automatic seat belts. But last year the government agreed to allow continued use of manual seat belts on the passenger side if the driver's side has an air bag. Now that decision has been upheld by a federal court, marking a major setback for the cause of auto safety.

Unless automatic belts are required by law, many people will continue to drive or ride unprotected. Worse, the introduction of air bags may lull some into thinking it no longer is necessary to buckle up.Air bags protect drivers and passengers in head-on collisions of more than 10 miles an hour. But a collision at 9 miles an hour or less still risks throwing the driver or passenger into the windshield. What's more, air bags don't inflate when a vehicle is struck from the side, a common occurrence in accidents at intersections.

So air bags by themselves don't provide maximum protection; seat belts are also essential. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should require automatic belts and air bags for both front seats.