A bill that would make it mandatory for people in the front seats of automobiles to wear seat belts in Maryland got preliminary approval from the state Senate yesterday, without debate, on a quick voice vote.

The Senate is likely to take a final vote late this week or early next week and pass the bill along to the House of Delegates, where more serious opposition is expected.

Last year, a similar seat belt bill passed the Senate by a vote of 30 to 14 but subsequently was killed by the House Judiciary Committee, which the bill's proponents said is likely to be the biggest hurdle this year.

Sen. Frank Shore (D-Montgomery County), one of the most active seat belt supporters in the General Assembly, said a year-long campaign by groups interested in traffic safety may have improved the bill's chances this year.

Seat belt use is mandatory in 16 states and the District. Under the District's seat belt law, which went into effect Jan. 1, police can cite only those motorists who have been stopped for another offense. The fine is $15.

The Maryland proposal -- which would carry a $20 fine -- is similar and police could only charge a motorist stopped for something else.

The Virginia legislature, which rejected a seat belt bill last year, is considering one again this year.