It was closer than expected, but Del. J. Samuel Glasscock's mandatory seat belt bill cleared the House yesterday on a 52-to-48 final vote.

It had won preliminary approval Friday 57 to 39, "and I thought I would at least have 55" yes votes, Glasscock said.

The Suffolk Democrat, who has spent three years trying to get the bill out of committee, said he was glad that "at the least the House has made a statement."

The bill would require all persons in the front seats of cars equipped with seat belts to wear them or face a $25 fine starting next January. It makes exemptions for those with medical problems, rural mail and newspaper carriers, and police officers transporting prisoners.

Glasscock said he believed the bill could face more opposition in the Senate.

"I know the legislature isn't known for its consistency," he said. The legislature can pass bills raising the beer drinking age to 21 to protect teen-agers, "but when it comes to imposing something on ourselves, we balk," he said.

Supporters said raising the drinking age could save 20 to 30 lives a year. Making the use of seat belts mandatory could save as many as 200, he said.

"Two hundred is a lot better than 20 or 30," Glasscock said.