MORE THAN A few Marylanders may have reservations about police use of night-vision equipment to check on seat belt compliance. More than a few may find something a bit creepy about officers in the dark, peering through hand-held eyepieces zeroed in on individuals' belt buckles. The objective was to enforce the law, and an important safety measure, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) was within his rights when he decided he'd rather the state police direct their resources elsewhere.

Mr. Ehrlich, however, went astray when he referred to seat belt enforcement as "government intrusion into private decision making." Choosing to break a law is not a private decision. Highway injuries and deaths are not private matters; they cost the public. That is why Maryland lawmakers approved seat belt requirements in 1986 and strengthened them in 1997 by making failure to buckle up a primary violation, allowing police to stop a vehicle if they see someone is not buckled up.

Maryland does rank among the states with the highest compliance statistics, with a rate of 89 percent, according to observational surveys at more than 100 sites throughout the state. In the 3,200 vehicles checked during a three-hour patrol in Montgomery County, fewer than 4 percent of the occupants were not buckled, according to state police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley. In announcing this summer's "Click It or Ticket" campaign to encourage seat belt use, however, state police noted that 70 percent of vehicle occupants killed in nighttime crashes were not wearing belts.

Raising the current $25 fine might prompt more people to buckle up, but key state lawmakers said in 1997 that they would kill the primary-enforcement bill if the proposed fine were any higher. Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), a leading traffic safety advocate, says the idea is not to be punitive but to educate the public through a highly visible enforcement campaign. He believes the issue of night-vision equipment issue distracts from that objective; he urges a much stronger emphasis on the dangers of traumatic injury when people are slammed against dashboards and steering columns, thrown through windshields or hurled from vehicles.

Surveillance with night-vision equipment may be an excessive tactic, but as governor of Maryland, Mr. Ehrlich should not be an apologist for those who "decide" to break laws on the state's roads.