A Virginia Senate committee, which has repeatedly killed legislation that would mandate seat belt use, approved a seat belt bill yesterday for the first time and sent it to the Senate floor. The bill has passed the House and is strongly backed by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.

The committee's action came on the same day that a Washington group, supported by the automobile industry, released a survey showing that residents of Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs want mandatory seat belt laws by a wide margin. The same survey found that District residents overwhelmingly support a buckle-up law that became effective in December.

"We're infringing on a person's liberty to kill himself," said Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack), one of two senators who switched to support the bill after opposing a similar measure last year. The bill passed 9 to 6, the same margin by which it was defeated last year.

"It's close, but probably will pass" the Senate, said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), an outspoken opponent of the measure. "There may be a couple of amendments offered . . . but count the votes."

The Senate committee deleted an amendment yesterday that would have blocked police from charging a motorist with failure to wear the belt unless the motorist were stopped for some other infraction. If approved by the full Senate, the difference will have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

The seat belt measure, introduced again this year by Del. J. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), has been the subject of intense lobbying and highly charged public hearings. It would require motorists in front seats of vehicles to wear seats belts or risk a $25 fine. The state already requires that passengers under age 4 be placed in safety seats or harnesses.

The Glasscock bill exempts taxicabs, rural mail and newspaper carriers and anyone who receives a doctor's certificate stating that wearing a seat belt would be harmful.

"I have claustrophobia," said Sen. William T. Parker (D-Chesapeake), also an opponent, who unintentionally prompted laughter in the tense committee room.

The key changes were by Fears -- whose wife and son are doctors and have urged him to change his vote -- and Sen. J. Granger MacFarland (D-Roanoke). MacFarland said he switched because the state government requires employes to wear seat belts.

"I'm impressed the seat belt saves you," Fears said.

Another key vote came from Sen. Clarence A. Holland (D-Virginia Beach), a physician who is new on the committee. Holland replaced Democrat L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, an opponent who was elected lieutenant governor last year.

The Baliles administration lobbied hard for the measure, which supporters said would save about 200 lives a year in Virginia as well as thousands of serious injuries.

But it also was strongly supported by the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, which has spent more than $250,000 on a campaign to pass the bill.

Auto industry representatives nationwide want seat belt laws to help forestall pending federal requirements to install airbags, which dealers say are too costly. The federal Department of Transportation has decreed that airbags will be mandatory in vehicles unless states with two-thirds of the nation's population pass mandatory seat belt laws.

Locally, opponents of mandatory seat belt laws have referred to the federal loophole and characterized the issue as one of personal choice when voting against local measures.

David Wise, executive director of the National Capital Coalition for Safety Belt Use, said yesterday the federal rules had little to do with a local push for seat belt use. "Airbags are not available," he said. "We want to save lives now."

In the survey conducted last month, 86 percent of area residents said they favored strict enforcement of such laws as well, but only half said they use the belts regularly.

The telephone survey polled 600 residents from the District, 707 in Maryland and 780 in Northern Virginia and was sponsored by the coalition, a group of health, insurance, and civic group representatives. The survey was funded by a lobbying group for the auto industry.

In explaining the findings, pollster Richard B. Wirthlin said, "More people recognize the value [of seat belts] than take the time to pull that strap across the chest and attach it. But attitude [change] always precedes behavior change."

Wise said the findings -- similar to those of a survey conducted last month by the American Automobile Association -- are part of an effort to encourage use of seat belts in the District where violators will begin receiving $15 tickets in June.

National safety experts say regular use of the devices could save nearly 10,000 lives annually and prevent 327,000 serious injuries.

Maryland legislators have rejected similar measures in recent years. Currently, they are considering one that would impose a $20 fine on motorists and front-seat passengers found not wearing seat belts.

Like the District law and House version of the Virginia legislation, motorists covered by the Maryland bill could not be ticketed unless stopped for another offense. SEAT BELT SURVEY District / Maryland / Virginia

Favor mandatory use of seat belts 88% 75% 75%

Believe such laws save lives 84% 81% 84%

Favor strict enforcement of laws 84% 86% 89%

*Based on 2,087 telephone interviews in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia during January.

*SOURCE: National Capital Coalition for Safety Belt Use Inc.