I spotted Michael A. standing by the side of a country road, clutching the side of his car. He was disoriented and scared, his face beaded with sweat. When I stopped my car to get a closer look, I saw that Michael A.'s car had hit a tree. "Don't leave me," he pleaded.

Of course, I didn't. Instead, I reached for him and he crumpled into my arms. With help, he made it to the front fender of his car and leaned against it. Below, water from the ruptured radiator leaked on the ground and a bit of steam hissed from the car. From across the street, a man ran out of his house, saw what had happened and ran back to call the police. Michael A. was injured and in pain.

Almost immediately, Michael A. started to apologize. Somewhat incoherently, he said he had stopped at a nearby stand to buy tomatoes. He removed his seat belt and, since he was only going a short distance, had not put it back on. The tomatoes had caused the accident, he said. One of them rolled off the seat, and when he reached for it he veered off the road. He could not have been going over 30 miles per hour.

For the next half-hour, Michael A. -- short, about 35 and with dark, wiry hair -- repeated the saga of the rolling tomato. He cursed himself for stupidity, apologizing for all the trouble he had caused. He had chest pains and a cut lip and he may or may not have been in shock. He had cracked the windshield with his head and bent the steering wheel with his chest.

I felt sympathy for Michael A. -- that and anger. The sympathy came from the knowledge that I would have done the same thing. I worked once as an insurance investigator and so I know the value of seat belts. But if I had stopped to pick up tomatoes and was only continuing a short distance, I would not have re-buckled either. Michael A. could have been me. He could have been anyone.

The anger was directed at a different source -- at a federal government that has played around with the seat-belt issue for decades. It has allowed the auto industry, which would kill you to save a buck, to dilly-dally on the issue of protective restraints of all kinds -- the so-called passive belt, which wraps around you when the door closes, and the most efficient restraint of all, the air bag. It has done this even though it knows that we are all, at one time or another, Michael A. Often we need to be protected from our own foolishness.

At the moment, the administration has compromised with reality. If two- thirds of the states pass mandatory seat-belt laws, the government will not require automatic crash protection, possibly air bags. It's a rule written by officials who are driven by chauffeurs. In Washington, for instance, drivers routinely run red lights. Since the cops can't stop that, how in the world are they going to enforce a mandatory seat-belt law?

And even if those laws work, what good are they going to do in the one- third of the states where there are none? As for Michael A., it would take a cop at the tomato stand to make him buckle up.

The fact that we are responsible for our own actions is beyond dispute, and Michael A.'s contrition was proof of that. But it is also true that people will have accidents, that they will do something silly, and that they ought to be protected from their weakness. That, after all, is the thinking behind the move to raise the drinking age to 21: kids are inexperienced at drinking and are more likely to have traffic accidents as a result. The simplest, although not the fairest, solution is to stop them all from drinking.

Michael A. was taken to the hospital, his head ringing, chest pounding in pain, scared that his injuries were serious, maybe fatal. He cursed himself for his plight, certain he was the victim of his own carelessness. Later that day the only evidence of the accident was a little rip in the tree's bark -- right above the spot where another car had hit it earlier.

The tree always wins. Nature has done for it what neither the government nor the auto industry will do for the driver -- made sure it's protected in an accident.