WEST VALLEY CITY -- John Johnson is a responsible, 36-year-old father of two who makes sure everyone riding in any vehicle he drives -- including himself -- is either in a car seat or wearing a seat belt.

But there was a time, in his younger days, when Johnson was not so careful or conscientious.A few years back when a police officer pulled him over for having a cracked windshield, Johnson was not wearing his seat belt. His registration had expired as well, and he was cited for all three violations.

Of the three charges, the $10 fine for not wearing a restraint had the least impact.

"I paid the $10 fine, but I didn't really care. At the time, it meant nothing," Johnson said recently while waiting in line at the state Driver License Division office on 4700 South.

If not for the windshield or registration, Johnson could not have been cited for driving without a belt in the first place.

For nearly two decades, Utah has required front-seat passengers to wear restraints. But it is a secondary law, meaning another offense must occur before the driver can be cited.

"What got me to wear a seat belt is having kids in the car," Johnson said.

What might get others to wear their belts and make sure their passengers are properly secured, Johnson feels, is to increase the fine to $75 and further strengthen the seat belt rule by making it a primary law -- one that can be enforced on its own.

The state Legislature will consider doing just that this year.

SB6, which overhauls and toughens the state's seat belt law, will soon be considered by the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee -- perhaps as soon as Thursday.

"Seventy-five dollars would make a big difference when you're that age (under 30)," Johnson said.

The bill, endorsed by the Traffic Safety Task Force and the Transportation Interim Committee, also requires that children under 4 be secured in a car seat or other child-safety device. The current law applies only to children under 2.

The bill also requires drivers to make certain all passengers ages 4-15 are wearing seat belts. Passengers 16 and older also must wear a seat belt or face a possible fine under the proposal.

Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old South Jordan resident and father of four, agrees with Johnson that drivers and their passengers should wear seat belts. He said his family is pretty good about making sure everyone is buckled up.

But Davis has a problem with state government forcing drivers to use seat belts and make sure their young passengers do as well.

"It would certainly give me motivation, but I'm not sure I agree with the law," Davis said while waiting for one of his kids to get a driver's license. "I'm tired of government telling me everything to do.

"If you're smart, you'll buckle them up. It's common sense."

Statistics show it does make sense but is not all that common.

In 1998, for example, 259 children involved in traffic accidents were taken to the Primary Children's Medical Center emergency room.

Of them, 127 were properly restrained in their vehicles when the crashes took place. Just 24 percent of those children were ultimately admitted to the hospital.

Sixty-four of the 259, however, were not in car seats or seat belts. Half of them were admitted to the hospital.

"You look at the experience of other states that have passed the (primary seat-belt) law and the rate of seat-belt use has increased dramatically," said Bill Barnes, director of community relations for Primary Children's and a member of the task force.

Barnes said increased seat-belt use would save the state money -- as much as $7.4 million in 1996 in hospital charges alone.

"There's a public health impact on this. There's a public cost impact on this. There's a public safety impact to this," Barnes said.

Barnes and Craig Allred, director of the Utah Highway Safety Office, point out the relationship between use of seat belts by drivers and use of seat belts by child passengers.

When the driver is restrained, they said, 91 percent of child passengers also are properly restrained. When the driver is unbelted, that figure drops to 32 percent.

Simply giving officers the ability to enforce the seat-belt law as a primary offense will strongly encourage compliance by adult drivers, and as a result improve child-restraint habits, they said.

"It tells people this is a real law," Allred said of SB6. "With the secondary law, I hear people say so often, 'If it was a real law, I'd obey it.' "

Allred said while complete statistics are not yet available, it appears 1998 was one of the deadliest ever on Utah highways, with as many as 374 fatalities.

"Seventy percent of fatalities were not belted last year," he said. "This belt law would have saved 50 lives last year just like that," by increasing belt use by about 15 percent.

It doesn't take statistics to convince 16-year-old Holly Gale to wear a seat belt. The West Jordan High School student, who was waiting at the driver division to get her first license, recently lost one of her best friends in an auto accident. Heather Bingham, 18, died from injuries Jan. 13.

"It scares me right now," Gale said of driving. "I'm still going to go through with it."

SB6, sponsored by Sen. Robert Montgomery, R-North Ogden, is endorsed by a long list of prominent organizations, including AAA Utah, the Utah PTA, the Utah Safety Council and the Utah Safe Kids Coalition.