Motor vehicle accidents are the number one killer of children and the major cause of crippling injuries to youngsters. In Utah, traffic accidents kill a child about every other day. National studies show that for every death, another four children are left crippled.

Such figures are shocking. Yet studies show that Utahns do very poorly in the use of seat belts or safety seats. A frustrated surgeon who deals constantly with broken young bodies in an emergency room asks: "Don't people care?"Numerous studies show that a major portion of the deaths and injuries could be prevented through the use of seat belts and safety seats.

Utah law requires the use of seat belts, including safety seats for children under age 3, but the law is poorly enforced, mostly because the Legislature set it up that way. Traffic tickets for not being buckled up can only be issued in connection with another violation and cannot be treated as a primary violation.

The Primary Children's Medical Center Foundation and Dr. Michael Matlak, a pediatric surgeon at the hospital, are among those backing a new statwide "Hold On To Dear Life" seat belt campaign.

Matlak, who along with other medical colleagues have treated about 3,000 children involved in motor vehicle accidents during the past 14 years, says: "Parents will go to the grocery store and hang onto their child's hand for dear life and then will forget to buckle them up on the way home."

Only two-thirds of parents take the time or are concerned enough to buckle their child in a safety belt before taking off in their vehicle. "I'd like to know why that is? Why are we so far behind other states?" Matlak asks.

Studies show that the lives of at least 80 percent of those killed in traffic accidents could have been saved had they been wearing a seat belt.

Utah legislators should get tough when it comes to seat belt safety laws. Other states have done it and saved lives. States with the best compliance are the ones with the toughest laws.

Australia, after enacting very strict seat belt laws five years ago, cut its traffic death rate by 50 percent - not only a dramatic saving of lives but an enormous financial savings as well.

There's no reason why the same thing couldn't occur in Utah. But resistance to passage of such safety laws seems pervasive in the state.

A proposal for tougher enforcement died in the 1991 Legislature when a poll showed a majority of lawmakers against the idea. That opposition to tough seat belt laws is mirrored in public opinion polls.

Too many people learn a lesson too late. They become believers after their child, another child or someone else in their vehicle is killed or seriously injured.

Those who fail to use safety belts or who oppose stricter seat belt laws should spend some time in a hospital emergency room and watch doctors fight to save the lives and broken bodies of injured children. They might change their minds.