Beginning Friday the 13th, it will be even worse luck than it already is to be out driving or riding in the District of Columbia without your seat belt on. That's the day police in this city begin issuing tickets to people who don't use the belts and harnesses with which their cars are equipped.

It's one of the great mysteries of Western man that nothing -- not cautionary tales of death and disfigurement, not the pleas of loved ones or great collations of horrifying accident statistics -- has been so effective at getting people to use their seat belts as the mortifying prospect of getting a traffic ticket. But such has been the experience in other states that have adopted seat-belt laws, and if that's what it takes to get more people in Washington to take this simple and painless step toward greatly improving their chances of surviving a crash, then it's worth it.

The District's seat-belt law took effect six months ago, but so far police have been handing out only warning tickets to violators. Starting Friday, they will be writing real ones, which carry a $15 fine.

sk,2 True, that's a small fine. Moreover, the police can't pull you over just because you (or a front-seat passenger) aren't wearing your seat belt. They have to stop you for some other offenses, but they can then ticket you on the seat-belt charge. The relative lack of teeth in this law reflects a complicated dispute over whether auto manufacturers should be required to put passive restraints, such as air bags, in cars. If states with two-thirds of the country's population pass mandatory belt laws, the manufacturers will be freed of this federal requirement. Some on the D.C. Council didn't want to contribute to that outcome, so the fine here was set low enough so that the District's law wouldn't count toward the two-thirds goal.

sk Thus, even if you're one of those anticipating the millennium when every car will be required to have an air bag, you can happily obey this law -- and be a lot better off for it should your car hit a tree in the interim.