One can assume that when the driver of that flashy car set out, it was not his intention to run into a tree. But at 1 a.m. on Saturday, he did.

Now the tree was wedged into the deep V gash in the car's front end, and the vehicle's rear protruded into a narrow suburban roadway.

Three neighbors who heard the crash ventured out to see what had happened. "There's no sign of the driver," the first neighbor on the scene said when the second arrived.

The second man looked up and down the roadway. "Maybe he's walking for help," he said. "Maybe we ought to see if we can find him."

The other man had been shining a flashlight into the interior of the car. "He's not likely to be walking very far," he said. "Look at that."

He centered his light on the steering wheel of the auto. It had been bent into the configuration of a pretzel, with its rim pushed beyond the end of the steering post. "That fellow not only took a wallop from the steering wheel," one of the neighbors observed, "he probably took the end of the steering column in his chest as well. My guess is he's nursing some broken bones." A few minutes later, the police arrived and replaced guesswork with facts. They learned by radio that two injured occupants of the car had been taken to a hospital by a passing motorist.

"It happens all the time," a policeman remarked as we waited for a tow truck to remove the wrecked car. "People can't be bothered to put on their seat belts and safety harnesses. After all, they're setting out to go somewhere, not to have an accident, so why bother with a seat belt?"

I knew exactly what he meant. I used to be a person who couldn't bother with seat belts. Then I bought a car that can't be started unless seat belts are in place for those who sit in front. I hated that, but I became accustomed to it. Now I count myself lucky to have such a safety system.

Very often when I give a lift to a friend, he groans when he's told that he must buckle up or the car won't start. "For heaven's sake, man, you can get a mechanic to bypass the damn thing for $10," friends tell me.

They must think I'm more stupid than I look. In a rare moment of courage, Congress passed a short-lived law that forced me to "waste" three seconds in hooking up my safety harness. Why should I be foolish enough to pay somebody to help me endanger my life? Are broken bones less bother than putting on a seat belt?

If you are a person who can't be bothered with safety precautions, I have a suggestion for you: Sit down behind the steering wheel of your car. Grasp the wheel with both hands and squeeze it. Push on it. Putt it toward you. Note its texture and firmness. Try to bend it. Imagine the force that would be needed to twist it into the shape of a pretzel. Imagine hitting it hard enough with your chest and ribs to turn it into a twisted hunk of metal.

Then if you still can't be bothered to wear a safety harness, suit yourself.

It's a free country.