The Maryland House of Delegates early today approved without discussion a measure requiring motorists to wear seat belts in the front seats of cars.

The measure, adopted on an 89-to-45 vote, closely resembles a bill passed by the Senate two months ago and would provide for $25 fines for front-seat occupants found without their seat belts buckled.

If the House and Senate agree on the final wording, as seems likely, Maryland will join 18 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring motorists to wear the belts, a step seat belt proponents have called life-saving, but which opponents have ridiculed as government meddling at its worst. A mandatory seat belt law was defeated in the recent session of the Virginia General Assembly.

Seat belt proponents cite automobile injury and fatality statistics to make their case that enforced seatbelt use could save hundreds of lives each year.

The argument has been buttressed during the last two years by automobile manufacturers and dealers who have sought the seat belt laws as a way to avoid being compelled to install air bags. A lobbying group partially funded by the auto industry spent $200,000 on the effort in Annapolis this year, its director said last week.

The bill's sponsor, Del. Arthur Alperstein (D-Baltimore County), attributed today's vote not to organized lobbying but to citizen support during an election year, and increased media attention on the issue. "There are so many bills that you say, 'Its time has come.' This one's time came," he said. "There are so many troopers who have said they've never unbuckled a dead person. It just sunk in."

Alperstein, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, last week played a key role in maneuvering the bill out of that committee, where it died last year on a 14-to-4 vote. Committee passage was viewed as a key hurdle for the bill, which is supported by Gov. Harry Hughes and the leadership of both houses.

For the measure to be enacted, one house will have to pass the other's bill. Amendments the House adopted Saturday, which removed a provision that would have made failure to buckle seat belts a so-called moving violation for which points would be assessed against drivers' licenses, brought the two versions closer together. Both bills would allow motorists to be charged under the law only if they have already been stopped for another violation.

In other action last night, as the House speeded to catch up on its work by the April 7 adjournment, lawmakers passed a package of legislation designed to improve housing opportunities for low-income Marylanders. Proposed by Hughes as part of a comprehensive "housing initiative," the measures would: subsidize production of low-income housing, subsidize group homes for mentally retarded and mentally ill adults, authorize use of state funds to provide indoor plumbing and lead paint removal, and mandate a housing code.

The Senate has already adopted the housing package, but in a different form, and the two houses will have to work out their differences. The differences center on language requiring a statewide housing code -- the Senate allowed the state to set minimum statewide standards but the House decided to allow each county to write its own version. The House also rejected a proposal to subsidize rental assistance to impoverished adults, which the Senate approved.

The House narrowly killed a measure that would have voided new pesticide laws in Prince George's and Montgomery counties by prohibiting local governments from enacting laws regulating the use of lawn chemicals.