Maybe we haven't taken to seat belts in cars the way fish take to water. But the vast majority of us buckle up nevertheless.

This is self-preservation at work. Probably it's also a strong desire not to hear the ear-busting warning that most dashboards deliver if you fail to buckle up. Whichever, seat belts seem to have settled into everyday life, like death, taxes and brushing one's teeth.

But the one sector of the population that isn't getting buckled in as often as it should is young children. Erica Jocelyn Chew is front and center to plead for better.

Erica is a volunteer emergency medical technician with the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad. She says she sees unbuckled children all the time -- and also the bloody results when unbuckled children are involved in accidents. As the ice and snow season approaches, Erica asks me to "use your influence" to get my readership to improve.

I'll be glad to use more than my influence on this problem, Erica. I'll use my basso profundo. I already have, many times.

One night, as I drove toward the city on New Hampshire Avenue in White Oak, I drew abreast of a pickup truck. A mother was holding a newborn in her arms in the front passenger seat.

I rolled down the window and shouted, "You put that child in a car seat and a seat belt right this second!"

If you've never heard my voice, consider yourself lucky. It doesn't shatter glass. It shatters distance records.

Referees at basketball games have turned to stare at me when I'm hurling abuse at them from the 40th row. That's how "big" I can be. I'm even louder when a baby's life is at stake.

Happy ending: The mother on New Hampshire Avenue did what I shouted at her to do. Less happy ending: the time I passed a car in the parking lot of Fair Oaks Mall.

A man was driving -- and while he did so, he was bouncing a child of about 2 on his thighs. One of those "help Daddy drive" tableaux.

I did my shouting bit. The father got so upset that he shouted back -- some nonsense about who did I think I was to tell him what to do with his own son? I was about to point out that he might soon lack that son when he roared off, with a contemptuous squeal of his tires.

Erica has seen the damage done to unbelted children. She says it's no fun to come upon an accident scene where "one child is screaming in agony and the other is quietly gasping." But that doesn't stop some parents from allowing kids to ride unrestrained in the rear bed of a pickup truck, not to mention the body of a sedan.

I'm very well aware that it can sometimes be tough to insist that a child obey the seat belt laws. But a car is not an amusement park. Children have to be belted in, every time, even if they're screeching with fatigue and even if they have just poured orange juice all over themselves.

If this were a TV ad, it might end this way:

Listen to Erica now, so you don't meet her later.

We are nearly at the two-month mark, but we are still trickling. Our grocery receipt drive needs far more.

For the ninth consecutive year, I'm spearheading an effort to collect receipts from Giant Food and Safeway stores for the benefit of one D.C. public school. This year, the school is Shaw Junior High in Northwest Washington. We're hoping to gather more than $8 million in receipts before the collection period flames out in late winter.

We aim receipts at one D.C. public school every year so that school can do as much with your largess as possible. If we manage to hit $8 million in receipts, Shaw can obtain a new computer lab with all the trimmings. If Shaw had to apply for that lab through the usual budget process, its students would be grandparents by the time it happened.

If you shop at Safeway, the program is organized differently from the way it has been in the past.

You do not need to send receipts to me. Just go to any Safeway store and tell the manager that you'd like to designate Shaw as your beneficiary. The manager will program your Safeway Club Card so Shaw gets credit every time you use the card. The code number for Shaw (very important) is 0222.

If you shop at Giant, please mail me your receipts, as in years past. The address is Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.

The Safeway program began Oct. 1 and runs through March 31, 2000. The Giant program began Sept. 19 and runs through Feb. 19, 2000. Please do not send receipts issued at any other time. They are worthless.

If you'd rather bring your Giant receipts to me, please use the side entrance to The Washington Post at 1515 L St. NW. Closest Metro stops are Farragut North on the Red Line and McPherson Square on the Blue or Orange lines.

Please bring receipts during normal business hours only. Make sure your gift is inside an envelope with my name printed legibly on the outside. Please do not bring receipts directly to Shaw, for security reasons.

Questions? Please call me at 202-334-7276 or e-mail me at leveyb@washpost.com. Many thanks, and let's turn a trickle into a waterfall.