You can wear a seat belt and possibly save your life. And you can wear a seat belt and ruin the life of your fur coat.

It may all sound like a pretty obvious choice -- pitting your own life against a fur -- but for some fur-fanciers the question is a serious one. The answer, simple enough, is to keep your car warm enough so you can take your coat off . . . .

The care and feeding of fur, once a subject of interest to only an elite few, today has a broader appeal as more and more women (and men) are buying furs. In 1971, the total volume of retail fur sales in the United States was $280 million; last year it was $750 million -- more than double. Despite increases in cost (at least 10 percent annually), sales of furs -- like other luxury "investments" -- continue to grow.

And while most purchases in the past were made by the mature (and the rich), today 50 percent of furs are sold to women in their 20's and 30's.

So, if you have a fur coat, how can you protect that investment?

"Fur doesn't wear out by itself," says Robert Landau, president of Grosvenor of Canada, who was here recently to show his furs for the benefit of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. "Some people are hard on furs, like some are hard on shoes."

On any list of things not to do in a fur coat, he would put driving. "It is the worst thing you can do in a coat because of the friction of the coat against the back and driver's seat. Then the battle is on," says Landau. "Furs can't stand up to it, regardless of the quality of the fur."

He suggests that anyone driving in a fur should sweep the coat to one side to relieve the pressure and taut pulling on leather and fur.

Other advice from fur experts:

If you are not wearing your fur for, say, a week, put a roll of tissue paper under the collar. "The seam of the shoulder is like the crown of the head and the pressure should be taken off when possible," says David Wolfe of Neiman-Marcus.

Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. "It oxidizes the color and dries out the leather (skin)," says Wolfe.

Never dry your fur near heat -- a light rain will not harm it -- but hang it where air can circulate it, says Marla Gartenhaus of Gartenhaus Furs. "A fur coat is not a raincoat, but if you are caught in a downpour and your coat is soaked to the point where you could ring it out, cleaning and glazing may be required to restore it."

Store your fur professionally during warm weather to best preserve it.

Pack for travel by folding the fur into itself, with the lining on the outside, says Wolfe. Tissue paper can help prevent the fur from being packed down too tightly.

Consider updating your fur every five or six years while the skins are still young enough to be refreshed, particularly in the collar and sleeves. "And turn your fur over to a daughter or friend when the time comes to get rid of it. Furs don't last forever. Nothing does," says Wolfe.

The most durable furs are fisher, mouton and Alaskan seal; very durable are mink, raccoon, Persian lamb and beaver; the least durable are the longhairs. Kidskin and Russian broadtail are what Michael Hennessey of Goldin-Feldman, a prestigious New York firm, terms "perishable."

Just how often furs should be cleaned depends on the furrier you ask. No one says less frequently than every other year, and most maintain that a once-a-year treatment helps retain the lustre and revitalizes the coat.

"Your fur won't always look dirty, like your hair may not look dirty, but it needs to be cleaned just the same," says Hennessey, who favors annual cleaning.

A final word on the subject: Wear your fur on a cold day. It is not only good for you, but good for the fur.

"The oil keeps working its way out to the tip and the fur springs up and is very much alive," says Wolfe. And au contraire: "Warm rooms make furs droopy."