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What's with those wooden-bead car seats that some drivers are riding around on these days?

"They're supposed to be comfortable," says Mike Cox, a salesman in the automotive department of Sears. "They don't feel any different to me. But people say they like them."The $9.99 wooden-bead car seat cushions sold specially well at Christmas, Cox says. "We've probably sold more than a hundred."

The cushions are widely available. But you won't find them at My Aching Back, a store that carries chairs, orthopedic mattresses and back supports.

"I'm not knocking them," says store owner Bob Lichtenstul. "Except for the decorative value and a little massage, they really don't do anything to provide support. They don't do any harm. And they may do some good. I'm just not sure how much."

Proponents say the seat covers allow air circulation, and they massage and relax the muscles.

Auto store manager A. J. Taylor recommends the more expensive brand with more durable wooden beads strung together with cloth instead of nylon cord.

Taylor recently drove his '85 Chevy truck from Pittsburgh to Daytona Beach, Fla. "I couldn't have made that trip to Daytona without them . . . I've had a herniated disc, and those beads really massage your back, especially on long distances and over rough roads. They relieve fatigue. Next time you're at a truck stop, take a look and you'll see at least half the 18-wheelers have them."

Christopher Moore discovered the benefits of the beaded seat covers last July during a 1,000-mile car trip to Arkansas and back. "They sort of lift you off the seat and keep you cooler," says Moore.

Moore had a minor backache on the first leg of the trip, when he didn't have the beaded covers. He had them on the way back to Pittsburgh, and his back felt better. "They certainly didn't hurt," says Moore.

The wooden-bead car seat cushions originated in Taiwan and are popular throughout the Orient, according to Illinois importer Patrick Batteiger.

Batteiger says the seat covers were imported from Taiwan about 10 years ago, but at $29.99 they didn't sell.