Though seat belts save lives, more than half of all motorists still don't buckle up.

So it's easy to understand why safety officials want more states to adopt mandatory seat belt laws and get tougher about enforcing those already on the books.But that's no excuse for Washington's latest brainstorm on seat belts, an idea that represents the triumph of good intentions over good judgment.

This week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration urged Congress to provide cash bonuses to states that adopt mandatory seat belt laws and other safety programs to reduce highway fatalities.

Each year about 45,000 Americans die on the highways and 1.7 million are injured. Studies show that the lives of at least 80 percent of those killed in traffic accidents could have been saved if they had been wearing a seat belt. Seat belts lessen injuries dramatically, too. In one study, hospital charges for accident victims not wearing a belt were three times greater than the charges for belt wearers.

Yet, incredibly, only 37 states - including Utah - have seat belt laws. Even in many states with such laws, enforcement is lax and compliance is low.

What would be wrong, then, with providing cash bonuses as an inducement to get states to adopt more and tougher seat belt laws and to get motorists to buckle up?

For one thing, consider the unhappy precedent that could be set once Washington starts bribing the states and individual citizens to do the right thing. What would be next? Cash inducements to get industries not to violate the laws against pollution? Bonuses to get contractors to obey the laws designed to produce safe roads and strong bridges?

For another, the proposed bonuses would divert money - an estimated $75 million a year - that might be more effective in saving lives if spent on car air bags.

Since 1984, the use of seat belts has increased from only 14 percent of all motorists to 46 percent. By all means, the few states that have not yet adopted seat belt laws should get on the bandwagon. Likewise, more motorists should make a habit of buckling up.

But let's rely on more education programs, rather than bribes, to make this nation's highways safer.