While Americans debate the pros and cons of a 55-mph speed limit, most West Europeans legally drive much faster than that, and they've been doing so with a lower fatality rate than the United States.

West Germans can go as fast as they want on their highway system known as the autobahn so long as they obey other traffic rules, such as the proper use of directional signals when changing lanes.Elsewhere in Western Europe, speed limits range from 140 kilometers an hour (86.6 mph) in Italy to 88 kmph (55 mph) in Ireland, which does not have an extensive superhighway system.

The latest statistics of the 12-nation European Economic Community, for 1986 when a uniform 55-mph limit was still in effect in the United States, indicate a highway fatality rate of 14.4 per 100,000 population in contrast to 19.9 in the United States that year.

The 1986 highway death toll for EEC nations, with a total population of 320 million, was 46,046; in the United States, with a popultion of 242 million, the motor vehicle fatalities numbered 47,900.

But the United States has more motor vehicles and highways than West Europeans. Americans are driving an estimated 176 million cars, buses and trucks on about 42,500 miles of interstate highways; the 12 EEC countries have an estimated 122 million such vehicles and about 17,800 miles of highways similar to U.S. interstates.

This past March, however, the U.S. Department of Transportation said traffic fatalities in the United States for 1987 were the lowest in history, as measured by 100 million miles of travel. It put the rate by that measurement at 2.4 deaths compared to 2.5 in 1986, 3.3 in 1980 and 24.08 in 1921, the first year the calculation was made.

The department attributed the 1987 decline to the increasing use of seat belts and a reduction in drunken driving.

Seat belts are required in most West European countries, as they are in 32 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Italy plans to require seat belts by September 1989.

Many European countries also have stiff penalties for drunken driving.

Although their highway death tolls have been lower than the United States, some West European countries are trying to get their own drivers to slow down.

In 1986, the EEC proposed a uniform speed limit of 120 kilometers an hour (74.4 mph) for member nations, but the idea has fallen on deaf ears or has met with outright opposition.

"The federal republic (West Germany) would be the last country to accept any uniform limit," said Wolf-Ruediger Nickel, a traffic expert for the state of Lower Saxony.

Last year, 693 people died in accidents on West Germany's 5,239-mile autobahn system, where multi-car pileups are routine. Twenty-three vehicles piled up on Sunday morning, April 10, on an ice-covered stretch near Schweinfurt in northern Bavaria.

The fatality toll on all roads in West Germany, a nation of 61 million, was 7,973 in 1987, or 13.07 per 100,000 population.

While the autobahn system has no overall speed limit, many areas near bridges, construction sites and major cities are posted, often with police enforcement.

West German officials also are looking into ways to slow autobahn traffic in areas where accidents are frequent.

Traffic engineers in Cologne and Frankfurt are setting up elaborate systems that will bounce beams of light off passing traffic to measure speed and the number of vehicles on two key stretches of the autobahn.

The information will be fed to a computer that will automatically adjust speed limits to conditions and post them in bright lights on electronically equipped traffic signs.

Officials in other nations are becoming speed conscious.

In Britain, Transport Secretary Paul Channon has announced a package of measures, including more road signs and speed restrictions, "to eliminate our own bad driving on motorways."

Lower speeds at major road construction sites will be mandatory and traffic will be monitored by video equipment, among other measures.