The National Safety Council may be best known for its grim projections of highway death tolls on holiday weekends, but its leaders wince at their perceived role as "body counters."

The council's warnings about the risks of holiday travel are just a small part of its public-education effort to save lives and prevent accidents by making Americans more careful, said T.C. Gilchrest, the organization's president.The mission is the same as when the council was founded 75 years ago by representatives of industry, railroads and insurance companies concerned about the loss of lives and production.

"We try to reduce what is unacceptable," Gilchrest said last week of the public-service organization, a non-profit, non-governmental group.

And the council considers it unacceptable that in 1986 there were more than 90,000 accidental deaths and 8.9 million disabling injuries in the United States at a cost to the economy of about $118 billion.

"No accident is a function of fate or providence," said Gilchrest. "Every accident is a function of carelessness that could be prevented."

The council has 12,400 member organizations - including businesses, schools and private groups - and works with about 100 affiliated local safety councils.

Membership fees account for about 15 percent of its $29 million annual budget, according to council Vice President Melinda Thomas. Most of the balance is generated by safety-consulting services, defensive driver courses and other instruction programs and materials.

Gilchrest said the council has changed with the times to go beyond its traditional industrial and traffic safety concerns, getting involved in such issues as AIDS prevention and drug abuse.

But consumer advocate Ralph Nader said the council remains too much under the influence of industry, avoiding critical studies on workplace safety that might offend corporate members.

"The council spends a lot of time on human miscues, handling machines, and not enough on badly designed consumer products and workplace machinery that abuse consumers and workers," said Nader in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.

Gilchrest said he takes pride in the council's reputation as "an honest broker" on safety issues. He said the council takes a positive approach that puts greater emphasis on saving lives than on "finger pointing."

With workplace accidents costing U.S. industry about $34.8 billion in 1986, he said companies understand safety is better business. The loss estimates are based on wage losses, medical expenses, insurance costs, property damage, money value of time lost on the job and other factors.

The nation's accidental death rate has dropped 52 percent in the past 75 years, from 82 per 100,000 population in 1912 to 39 per 100,000 in 1986, but rates are lower in Japan and many Western European countries.

"In terms of safety, America is a third-rate country," said James Tye, director general of the British Safety Council in London.