Despite pleas from public safety and other officials, a good many Americans ignore or seem to forget the importance of buckling up with a seat belt when they get in their car.

And that neglect - or resistance in many cases - continues to take thousands of lives every year in the United States. Utah is no better than most other states in this regard.Mandatory seat belt laws alone do not seem to be the answer. Relying solely on airbags is not a substitute either. Seat belts must also be fastened for people to be completely protected.

Last year, U.S. car accidents caused more than 30,000 deaths. Yet studies show that at least half of the fatal injuries could have been avoided - 15,000 lives - if motorists had been motivated to put on their seat belt. These statistics are tragic and frustrating.

To the astonishment of many, Massachusetts has repealed its seat belt law, an irrational decision in light of accident statistics.

Karl Gerlinger, president and chief executive officer for BMW of North America Inc., says resistance to seat belt laws is not simply about safety. He says it may be about cultural resistance to government interference with individual freedom.

If that is the case, traffic and public safety officials should take steps to overcome such resistance through a carefully planned and executed marketing program.

In Australia, where people tend to share American-like individuality, 90 percent of the population uses belts. The high rate of use stems from a consistent, education campaign for the past 20 years.

Utah's seat belt law became binding April 28, 1986. The state has primary and secondary areas of enforcement; seat belts are part of the latter. As a result, a law enforcement officer can't just stop drivers for not wearing seat belts. However, once motorists are stopped for some other violation they can be ticketed for not wearing the safety device.

During the first six months of 1990, troopers issued 9,283 citations and gave 9,025 warnings to motorists not wearing seat belts. This compares with 12,304 citations and 16,717 warnings during all of 1989.

Under the patrol's newest efforts to encourage more use of seat belts, there will be more tickets issued than just warnings given, Whitney says.

Shoving statistics, warnings and tickets aside, Utahns should be more conscious about keeping alive and healthy. They should buckle up because it makes sense. Seat belts really do save lives.