May 11, 1987, was much too good a day to stay in school - or so thought Heather Nelson, Jessica Dooley, Janet McTaggert and Alese Davis, all students at Grand County High School in Moab.

The four teenagers piled into a new car belonging to the grandparents of one of the girls and decided to go for a drive. As they reached the head of one canyon road, they turned around and began to head back."Everybody got your seat belts on?" chirped one of the girls as they all buckled up. "Let's see how fast this car will go."

Minutes later, the car failed to negotiate a curve. Police say the car was going about 100 mph when it left the road, rolled three or four times, flew off a 15-foot embankment and landed upside down in Pack Creek.

All four teenagers sustained bumps and bruises. The most serious injury was a broken pelvis.

"If they hadn't been wearing their seat belts, probably two or three of them would have been ejected and killed," said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Craig Allred. "But they had been involved in a seat-belt program at the high school, it was on their minds and it probably saved their lives."

The four aren't alone in their story. Allred says Utah drivers and their front-seat passengers are buckling up more than ever before, and the result - as experts have always postulated - is a sharp decline in the number of Utah automobile fatalities.

There were 25 fewer fatalities (excluding pedestrians) in 1987 than in 1986. Statistics for 1988 are expected to reveal even a greater drop, as seat-belt usage increases.

According to a survey just released by Laura Lewis, director of the Occupant Protection Program for the Utah State Health Department, the percentage of front-seat occupants who wear seat belts rose from 22 percent in March 1987 to 29 percent in March 1988.

Seat-belt usage in urban areas rose from 26 percent to 33 percent, and in rural areas from 14 percent to 19 percent.

A Utah Highway Patrol survey of seat-belt usage on just highways and freeways show a much higher usage rate: 46 percent on urban highways in June 1988 and 45 percent on rural highways.

Urban areas showing significant improvement include Salt Lake City, up from 27 percent to 37 percent; and Bountiful, up from 25 percent to 44 percent. Rural areas showing significant improvement include Moab, up from 17 percent to 35 percent; and Logan, up from 20 percent to 44 percent.

Officials say the rise in seat-belt usage is a direct result of both intense enforcement and high-profile public education campaigns. "Enforcement without public education is not very effective," said Allred.

The UHP issued 10,000 citations and 25,000 warnings last year for seat-belt violations.

But it's the public education programs that both the UHP and the Department of Health are particularly proud of. Education campaigns in various high schools have pushed seat-belt usage as high as 95 percent among students.

Usage at Hurricane High School went from 0 percent to 95 percent, and at Weber High School, usage rose to 64 percent. At Grand County High School, usage rose to 81 percent.

"We don't know how many of those continue to wear seat belts after they graduate from high school," said Lewis, "but indications are the retention is quite high."

Ron Pierce, a driver education instructor who initiated the seat-belt program in Moab, agrees. He has received numerous letters from former students who have survived potentially fatal accidents because they were wearing seat belts.

But it's not only high school students who are interested in seat belts. Allred says he has given at least 200 presentations over the past year to community groups, church groups and others.

"We present the basic facts to them: 95 percent of those killed were not wearing seat belts, and 90 percent of those seriously injured were not wearing belts," he said.

Allred and Lewis both say the the public education campaigns are successful because they are comprehensive. The programs involve the UHP, city police departments, county sheriff's offices, county health departments, schools and private businesses.

Utahns are also complying more with child restraint laws, the survey reveals.

The percentage of children using appropriate restraints rose 7 percent to 31 percent statewide. In 1984, only 13 percent of children passengers were properly restrained.

When only children under age 2 are considered, the rate of usage in urban areas rose from 38 percent in 1987 to 50 percent in 1988, and from 31 percent to 36 percent in rural areas during the same time. For children age 2 to 5, the usage in urban areas is up from 23 percent to 26 percent, and from 15 percent to 20 percent in rural areas.

"We found a high correlation between the drivers being restrained and children being restrained," said Lewis. Consequently, many seat-belt campaigns are directed at children, realizing if the child buckles up the parent probably will, too.

Information from Graph

Wearing Seat Belts in Utah Percentages reflect the number of front seat occupants retrained. Rural Usage Urban Usage Total April 1986 12% 20% 18% March 1987 14% 26% 22% March 1988 19% 33% 29%