New York City drivers are not known for their meekness.

But even some of the crustiest and most reluctant among them have buckled down and buckled up since Jan. 1, rather than risk a fine of up to $50 for failing to fasten their seat belts. A state survey during January in four areas of metropolitan New York showed that between 63 and 76 percent of the drivers stopped were abiding by the state law in its first month.

"I didn't buckle up before the law went through," said Baez Bernardino, 51, of Brooklyn. "They're not very comfortable, and sometimes you can't maneuver the way you want to, and most of the time traffic on local streets is bumper-to-bumper anyway. But I'm trying. I still have to think about it before I wear it."

New York is the leader in a state-by-state response to a U.S. Department of Transportation ruling last July. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole announced then that states representing two-thirds of the nation's population must pass seat belt laws by 1989.

If such laws are not passed, Dole said, automakers will have to install air bags or other automatic restraints in new cars. An air bag is a device that inflates automatically on forceful impact, protecting the victim with a cushion between the seat and the windshield.

In the months following Dole's announcement, the reaction by state lawmakers has been mixed.

Eight states -- Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, the Dakotas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming -- have killed belt-use bills.

Maryland's action last Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee arose out of a distrust of government interference in the private decisions of residents, as well as resentment that automakers were supporting the bill as a way "of ducking air bags," according to committee chairman Joseph Owens of Montgomery County.

The Virginia bill's failure last month also was attributed to the state's long-held resentment of federal interference.

A few states, accounting for about 20 percent of the U.S. population, passed seat belt laws -- with moderate controversy among legislators and maximum lobbying by the auto industry. On March 1, New Jersey became the second state to enforce such a law. Legislatures in Illinois, Michigan and Missouri have approved similar laws, which will take effect later this year.

Thirty-two states are considering seat belt bills, including California, which has 10 percent of the nation's population. In the District of Columbia, Mayor Marion Barry has voiced his support for legislation that would require seat belt use by anyone driving in the District, but the bill is in an early stage of discussion, a spokeswoman for the mayor said.

To the auto industry, the seat belt debate is a high-stakes test of influence and political power. For nearly a decade, automakers have resisted air bags as too expensive and only partially effective. This year alone, the industry expects to pump $12 million to $15 million into its fight to promote seat belt legislation, said Tom Hanna, president of Traffic Safety Now Inc., a coalition of major automakers.

Lobbying in Maryland and Virginia, however, was relatively light.

To consumer and insurance interests, the intense effort by the auto industry is no more than a means of escaping federal regulations on automatic restraints. The two groups have formed the National Coalition to Reduce Car Crash Injuries to promote air bags as an important safety standard that could save as many as 9,000 lives a year. So far, the coalition has about $25,000 to spend, according to Joan Claybrook, president of Private Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.

But to the public at large, which is caught in the middle of the debate, seat belts represent one of two things -- either a dangerous intrusion by government into private habits or a sensible way of getting people to take a precaution they might not take voluntarily. In New York, both views are easy to find.

"This is not supposed to be Russia where the government tells you what to do and when to do it," grumbled Alvin Rippey, 35, owner of a Bronx construction firm.

"I wish it was mandatory for everybody, because it's worth it," said Xenia Barley, 29, a Manhattan store clerk. "If any of my friends give me lip about seat belts, I just remind them of those commercials where people go sailing through the windshield."

Seat belts have been offered as standard equipment in passenger vehicles for almost 20 years. But, while DOT estimates that belts can reduce serious injury and death by 45 to 55 percent, only 15 percent of the population routinely uses them. Of the 30,500 drivers and passengers who died in traffic deaths in 1983, less than 3 percent were wearing seat belts.

Generally, more women than men are frequent users, and people with higher incomes and more education use them more frequently than other groups, said Charles Pulley, president of the American Seatbelt Council.

The groups that wear seat belts less frequently are people over age 55 and between the ages of 17 and 24 -- the latter group representing 8 percent of the drivers and 22 percent of the fatalities, Pulley said.

Nonusers complain that seat belts are uncomfortable or could trap them inside the car if an accident occurred. Another excuse from sometime-users is that they see no need to wear the belt when driving on short excursions in their neighborhoods. Pulley points out, however, that 80 percent of the fatal accidents occur within 25 miles of home.

More than 35 countries have seat belt laws. Since England's law went into effect Jan. 1, 1983, surveys have shown that usage has risen to 90 percent. In previous voluntary campaigns, seat belt usage had reached only 30 percent.

"The advantage of having a law," said Pulley, "is that the vast majority of people are law-abiding."

In the state of New York, residents are learning the penalty for disregarding their law.

Statewide, about 3,000 tickets, ranging from $10 to $50, have been given to unbelted drivers and their front-seat passengers. New York City police have issued almost 1,000 tickets.

"The passengers are the people who complain," said New York City police officer Joel Crosby. "They say, 'I wasn't doing anything. I was just sitting there.' "

While most New Yorkers are trying to live with the law, others are working to get it repealed, including Republican state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, who has collected 23,000 signatures from people who hate the law.

Betty Shufelt of Rutland, Vt., who gained a certain unwanted publicity for being the first person ticketed under New York's law, would just as soon forget the whole issue. Shufelt, a 29-year-old factory worker, was stopped for a moving violation in Whitehall, N.Y., 10 minutes after midnight on Jan. 1. She ended up with a $10 ticket for not wearing a seat belt.

"It was a lot of hassle, and I don't like being told what to do," Shufelt said.

When she crosses the New York state line again, however, Shufelt will fasten her seat belt. "I won't want to," she said, "but I will."